Dinner started with a literal black mark.
The smoked-trout appetizer at Paragary’s, sculpted into an artful pile at the center of a large plate, contained a piece of avocado with a prominent dark spot, along with fish that tasted overly fishy.
Our first review visit to the midtown Sacramento institution, which reopened last summer after a $1 million revamp, also entailed disengaged service, a half-hour wait between courses and involuntary reminders of our 1980s youth via a sound system too loud to tune out.
Yet to call the experience unpleasant would mischaracterize it. Because we were ensconced at a table near the fireplace on Paragary’s famous patio, the historical elegance of which has been enhanced by an overhead canopy that keeps off the sun in summer and holds warmth in winter, and by a Parisian-style klieg-light sign reading “Soigne” (translation: “fashionable and polished”; commentary: you’re telling me!).
The sign rests above a folding glass door that on warmer days opens from the dining room, with its new white, black and French-influenced decor. Though the door was shut on the January night we visited – which was not so chilly to prevent us from sitting, comfortably, in jackets and under a heater on the patio – it still provided a visual through line from indoor to out.
Our subsequent two visits would take place in that lovely dining room, feature better service and food and convince me to recommend anyone curious about the revamped version of Paragary’s, which first opened in 1983, to give it a try.
But that inauspicious first visit could not help but color my overall impression. It and other factors, such as the costliness of certain menu items, prompt the caveat that the dining experience does not always match the quality of the new decor.
We might have caught our server, on that first visit, on an off night. She visibly deflated when I began to order for the whole table, requesting all dishes be shared. She made little eye contact during the rest of the meal.
It’s hard to impart what she was like in writing, because it was essentially a vibe and because she was never overtly rude. Actions speak louder: Our server and other service staff could be careless with utensil and plate placement and with the timing of dishes.
Louder still were the oldies on the sound system. On my subsequent visits, the music was subdued. On this one, we noted every artist and kept waiting for Casey Kasem to break in.
Infused with a bonhomie born from dining on the best restaurant patio in town, I tried to go with it. When one friend asked, slightly aghast, “What is that, the Eagles?” about a Don Henley solo song, I, partly inspired by Glenn Frey’s recent death, launched into a patience-testing monologue about the history of country rock.
It was, in hindsight, a desperate bid to add a sense of cultural sophistication worthy of the classy surroundings. The food and service were not doing it.
We waited 30 minutes between courses. When our entrees arrived, the grilled flat-iron steak was lukewarm, which might be why the smokiness tasted oddly artificial rather than the result of mesquite grilling. The meat also was relatively scant, given the $26 price tag.
Two Paragary’s classics, the sliced-mushroom salad and hand-cut rosemary pappardelle, had turned out well, however. The house pancetta lends a nice hit of salt to the perfectly al dente pappardelle. The salad tasted lighter than at the old Paragary’s, with the mushrooms’ freshness and Jarlsberg cheese’s buttery quality shining through.
But the desserts – sticky toffee pudding, panna cotta and Meyer lemon cheesecake – led with sweetness and followed with little complexity beyond the cheesecake’s suggestion of having sat a bit too long in a refrigerator. That cheesecake cost $10, or $2 more than the excellent pies at Empress and most desserts at Waterboy.
As that first night wore on, my patio-induced goodwill gave way to umbrage, precipitated by the appearance of one of the brothers Doobie on the sound system. Michael McDonald was singing “I Keep Forgettin’ ” or “Yah Mo B There” or one of those other songs that all sound the same – irrelevant and from the early ’80s. Two things Paragary’s was not supposed to be post-makeover.
It felt, for most of the night, like no one was minding the million-dollar store.
My subsequent visits, however, reminded me who ultimately minds it, and how Randy Paragary’s well-known gift for hospitality always prevails.
The new Paragary’s already has withstood upheaval. Scott Ostrander, chef de cuisine when the restaurant reopened in June 2015 (Kurt Spataro is executive chef for all Paragary’s restaurants), left in October for the Inn at Park Winters. His replacement, Paul DiPierro, followed. David LaRoche, who previously headed up the kitchen at the Paragary’s Hock Farm, moved to Paragary’s soon after.
Though the food was better on our second and third visits than the first, Paragary’s resilience and vision, as man and brand, were most evident in the exceptional service we received, and in the dining room’s new-found visual appeal. In its former, generic life, I always bypassed it for the bar, patio or patio bar (gone with the remodel).
One can see Paragary’s foresight in the vivid tile flooring that highlights the new interior and moves from a fleur-de-lys-style pattern in the dining room to Escher-style geometric in the bathroom.
What seems bold now will age better than the concrete-and-brick minimalism common to many new restaurants. And although one usually does not does not think of white, black and gray as warm, it is at Paragary’s. During the day, sunlight floods in from the big picture windows facing 28th Street. At night, overhead light fixtures create an inviting glow.
Our server during our lunch visit ranks among the best I’ve had anywhere. He was highly knowledgeable about dishes but sounded down to earth while describing them. He did not miss a step despite our special requests (sharing dishes, food to go, a last-minute entree order).
Lunch’s highlight was the richly satisfying croque monsieur, which holds ham and Gruyère cheese within egg-y, buttery brioche. In a case of glorious overkill, a Mornay sauce of bechamel, Gruyere and Parmesan is poured over the bread.
The skin of the pan-seared trout was expertly crisped, the flesh tender and fresh-tasting. A celery-root purée calmed the slight bitterness of the Brussels sprouts served with the dish.
The pear and Redwood Hill chevre salad – likely to leave the menu soon for seasonal reasons, LaRoche said – was lively, its pear, fennel and red Belgian endive components enriched by bits of cheese and hazelnut.
Paragary’s burger, which comes with flavorful, smoky house bacon and a juicy chuck patty, is good but not memorable enough to cost $16. Not when better burgers, at Magpie and Bacon and Butter, cost $4 and $3 less.
Our stellar server during our second dinner was friendly but unobtrusive, weathering our sometimes convoluted conversations about what to order, picking up on final decisions before we thought to tell them to her. Dishes arrived in a timely manner, as they had at lunch.
The mesquite-grilled quail starter offered tender meat with a bourbon and bacon marmalade, its sweetness offset by peppery arugula and slightly nutty-tasting cauliflower purée.
The parsnip purée and blanched turnip served with the beef short rib lent the dish earthy-salty flavor balance and textural variance, with the turnip’s crunch and freshness providing counterpoint to the tender, fatty meat.
The flaky Alaskan halibut found a similar balance, through celery-root purée and Brussels sprouts. But by then, I was sprouted out by Paragary’s, which also puts Brussels leaves on its wood-fired pizza. Those leaves tasted undercooked and bitter – though not bitter enough to cut through the too-sweet tomato sauce.
The pork chop, which was juicy and fat enough to merit its $26 price tag, comes with a knockout sweet-potato gratin side, composed of layered slices of sweet potato and yams, plus Gruyere and shallots. Lovely to behold and far more savory than sweet, this side was a nice break from puréed-everything.
The French influence on Paragary’s food menu was more apparent just after reopening than now, when dinner entrees run the gamut from pork chop to chicken breast. Randy Paragary told me last fall, when the menu already had shifted, that some items on early menus, such as chilled lamb’s tongue, had proved impractical in the kitchen.
Paragary, Sacramento restaurant king for decades running, apparently cuts his losses quickly. In other news, the water at Paragary’s – still and sparkling – is wet.
My lifetime visits to his restaurants number in the multiple dozens, if one counts every breakfast burrito at Cafe Bernardo and happy hour at Spataro (R.I.P.), which was my favorite Paragary’s restaurant food-wise, along with Centro. What carries through all the spots is settings that are comfortable yet also as well-heeled as you likely are going to get in proportion to price point.
You know the food at a Paragary place probably will be fine, at least, and the atmosphere a step above that. Choosing a restaurant via such parameters runs counter to the argument some have made, in the post-New York Times Per Se review world, that diners care more about food than swank ambiance.
But different restaurants fulfill different needs. Sometimes, you seek a place that envelops you in warm lighting, or firelight, as you sip a cocktail – where, because of feng shui or 1983 real estate prices, the space is large enough, and the seating spaced well enough, for you to really breathe and take everything in.
Paragary’s patio always had that. Now the interior does as well. That’s why I’ll go back. If I want bold and exciting, I’ll look at the floor.
1401 28th St., Sacramento. www.paragarys.com, 916-457-5737
Hours: Lunch:11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday. Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Sparkling cocktails include a “Paragary’s ‘83” and the deep yet refreshing “Seelbach,” with Old Forester bourbon and Chandon sparkling wine. French and Californian white wines. Long list of (mostly Californian) reds. Beers on draft include offerings from local breweries.
Vegetarian friendly: The menu is not particularly friendly, but chef David LaRoche said many dishes can be modified to be vegetarian.
Gluten-free options: Yes. Many dishes can be modified to be gluten-free.
Noise level: Mostly moderate, but sound carries in the dining room, and the music is too noticeable on the patio.
Ambiance: The redesign is lovely – the patio is even nicer than it used to be, and the interior dining area, with its lively tiled floor, is more distinctive and inviting than it once was. But the 1970s and ’80s hit parade on the sound system was turned up too loud on our first visit.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
Our first visit was a drag on a few levels. Although things improved considerably on the next two visits, the overall dining experience never quite reached the level of the elegant setting.
Food ☆☆ 1/2
The Paragary’s standards – hand-cut rosemary pappardelle and sliced mushroom salad – are rock-solid, but most of the starters we tried – smoked trout, squash risotto fritters, wood-fired oven pizza – disappointed. The mesquite-grilled quail was terrific, as were the pork chop entree at dinner and croque monsieur at lunch.
On our first visit, our server was not very engaged, and we waited 30 minutes between courses. But the servers who helped us on subsequent visits were top-notch.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Prices are not outrageous, but some items seem too costly, including the $16 burger and $9 and $10 ho-hum desserts.