The R Street Corridor’s emergence last summer as a must-visit Sacramento dining district came with a caveat.Just as places such as Fish Face Poke Bar were moving in, R Street’s long-standing culinary standard bearer moved out.
Magpie Café’s exit, to new, larger digs on 16th and P streets, left a quality gap on the street that went unfilled by new spots such as Iron Horse Tavern – an impressive space with uneven food when we visited, and Fish Face, which offers impressive food but a very narrow menu.
Magpie owners Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye held on to the cozy, brick-walled R Street space that had grown too small for their popular farm-to-table restaurant. Renamed Nido – “nest” in Italian and Spanish – this spot, directly after Magpie’s move, served as the restaurant’s bakery and a cafe serving coffee and baked goods.
And it was good for what it was. But it was also a little sad, because the essence of what made the place special – savory, complexly flavored yet unpretentious dishes such as the “chicken for two” dinner entree and crispy pork belly-and-stone fruit dinner starter – had gone.
That essence, and the reputation it built for Magpie, is why the restaurant was chosen to prepare lunch for the Dalai Lama during his visit to Sacramento in June. That, and Magpie’s carrot-cake cookies, which His Holiness scarfed.
But in the months after the transition, and while we all were distracted with trying to find parking at the new Magpie, or lining up for a haircut and cocktail at R Street’s Bottle & Barlow, or by the Dalai Lama’s colorful robes, Nido underwent its own transition. As of about four months ago, it’s become a restaurant that serves carrot-cake cookies and Magpie’s signature ice cream sandwiches. but also offers a menu of savory items unique to it.
It’s not a full-service restaurant offering an oft-changing menu, like Magpie is, but a counter-service spot in which the menu is more fixed, and where breakfast items are available all day, and no food item costs more than $10.
Roehr describes the updated Nido as a “fast-casual farm-to-table place with Magpie-style food and affordable beer and wine.” Roehr and Chris Woo, the longtime Magpie chef now in charge of Nido, collaborated on dishes.
This is a long way of saying Sacramentans are lucky.
Lucky to get 12 delicious chicken-wing drummettes, for $6, at Nido. Covered in a chimichurri-esque green sauce made from finely chopped green garlic, onion, jalapeño and cilantro before being tossed with butter, Buffalo-style, these wings are lively and herbaceous yet rich enough to satisfy that wing craving. All without being greasy, and costing 50 cents apiece.
Fortune also smiles on Nido diners who order a $4.25 breakfast sandwich that houses fluffy organic eggs and crispy bacon (or portobello mushroom) in an airy biscuit. Or a $5 fruit plate with up-to-the-minute, flavor-packed stone fruit sweetened by a bit of honey. Sandwich and fruit plate together cost $8.
Countless places around town, including Nido neighbors Fish Face and Café Bernardo, offer counter service and reasonable prices. But none hit that value/deliciousness sweet spot that Nido does.
For $10, you can get a spicy-sweet yet tangy yogurt chicken salad sandwich containing apple, almond and goat yogurt in a substantially sized croissant made with organic butter and flour. This hefty sandwich easily could serve two and comes with a wonderful kale side salad that hits many flavor points on its own, with tart dried cranberries, grandma’s pie-evoking toasted pecans and bright apple-cider vinaigrette.
These ingredients obscure the kale’s bitterness while remaining subtle enough to enable self-congratulation for eating kale.
Nido’s pork-belly bao, listed as a special but available on all our visits, contains pork belly prepared the same way it is as a Magpie appetizer – brined and confited in pig fat before being cooled, pressed and seared. Cradled by pillowy steamed bread, the pork belly here tastes meaty instead of just fatty. Pickled onions further cut the fatty factor of these buns, served in a pair, for $7.
I could go on. So I will, to a $7 cheese plate with dried figs, buttery toasted baguette slices and a 6-ounce hunk of Marin French Cheese Company breakfast cheese, an unripened Brie that’s creamy and fresh-tasting yet just sharp/sour enough for the wheel to taste like an extra-large cottage-cheese curd.
Spread this cheese on the bread, add the fig and pair with the Auburn Alehouse Californium IPA for an unexpected bleu-cheese effect.
Such discoveries are part of the affordable fun at Nido, where we ordered a $12 flight of 5-ounce samples of four draft beers, all helpfully labeled on their serving tray.
Nido’s prices also allow for the luxury of reassessing dishes. My first go with the smoked paprika and chickpea hummus underwhelmed, despite the ample serving size. Though the smoke was nice, the hummus lacked sufficient kick before we mixed in the kalamata olives that had lain atop it.
A friend who accompanied me on a subsequent visit wanted to try the hummus, and because it cost $6, we ordered it again. This time, I gave it more of a shot, savoring the smokiness and chickpea flavor instead of immediately going for the saltier, more obvious kalamata.
Single-digit prices fuel largesse. Had the hummus cost $10, I wouldn’t have tried it again.
Clearly, there are psychological factors at work. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the spiritual element: Giving an inexpensive dish a second chance suggests a lack of investment but also an openness. It’s the spiritual opposite of talking one’s self into liking a dish because it cost a lot.
Nido looks virtually the same as when it was Magpie, its exposed red-brick walls lending it a homey feel so different from the starkness of Magpie’s 16th Street space. Service at Nido is friendly and knowledgeable but limited, since one orders at the counter.
Because Nido is not full service, and thus there is not as much of a compensation gap between front and back of the house, Roehr and Inouye do not include a line for a kitchen tip on bills at Nido the way they do at the new Magpie, Roehr said.
Inouye and Roehr do seem to be showing the same degree of thoughtfulness, in how they source ingredients and treat employees, at Nido as they always have at Magpie. But Nido’s high-quality/low-cost quotient sets a new standard for the third part of the equation – accommodating customers.
1409 R St., No. 102, Sacramento. www.hellonido.com, 916-668-7594
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Limited wines available by the half-glass and glass. Draft and bottled beer. Cider and aperitifs. Magpie’s famous, non-alcoholic honey lemonade.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, and vegan friendly
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Moderate to (occasionally) loud
Ambiance: This counter-service restaurant sits in the same comfortable space, with exposed-brick walls and light-colored wood tables, as the old Magpie. The interior opens up to an appealing patio.
The place is relaxed in feel, and its food of uniformly high quality. Yet prices are low enough – for individual dishes and flights of beer – to allow for low-risk experimentation.
The pork belly bao and spicy chicken wings are remarkable, and the chicken curry sandwich is ample in size and complex in flavor. The breakfast sandwich and fruit plate – available all day – also are standouts on a menu full of high-quality food at low prices. The mushroom panini possesses little zip – but you can’t win them all.
Service is minimal, but the staff is friendly and knowledgeable.
Ingredients are local and seasonal, dishes are well-crafted, and servings are substantial. Yet no single food item costs more than $10.