Dining review: Macho meets elegant at Bacon and Butter
03/24/2013 12:00 AM
03/25/2013 11:00 AM
Here's some recommended reading for foodies: the menus at Bacon and Butter.
Yes, the menus.
Peruse them, month after month, and you'll begin to see a powerful statement about Sacramento's food scene – the farms, the talent, the determination to be better.
Through these menus you're likely to conclude, as I have, that the 29-year-old chef who drew them up has the vision and the passion to help lead Sacramento into a new and exciting era.
At once dynamic, creative, challenging and comforting, chef and owner Billy Zoellin's way with food is among the most exciting I have seen in this town. It's old-school. It's 21st century. It's the essence of Sacramento. The chef embraces the region's farm-to-fork style of dining without being predictable, dull or derivative.
The only thing he doesn't do is make your decisions at the table any easier. Visit on a weekday for breakfast and try an omelet stuffed with ingredients such as baby artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta. Or go out on a limb with a dish such as pork belly hash with red potatoes, two eggs, and sautéed cabbage and apple with whole-grain mustard.
Drop by for lunch and try the burger, which should probably come with some kind of PG-13 warning. I took a pal there recently for lunch and, as Sinatra once sang, his eyes practically bugged out his head.
"This is the best *&%$#@! hamburger I've ever tasted," he gasped, as I scanned the room to make sure no nuns were present. I might say the same about the smashed potatoes, which are poached, smashed and then fried – so crisp and light, yet so rustic and unfussy and delicious.
Zoellin's burger has evolved over the months since he opened this breakfast-and-lunch spot on 21st Street. Right now, I think my friend with the salty language is right – it's the best burger in town. It's big and beautiful, with a domed bun and flavor everywhere. The beef itself is at once explosive and balanced on the palate. Neither salty nor tame, the beef is a full-bore, well-rounded, no-holding-back tour de force of flavor.
How does the chef pull that off? Notice the name is not Tofu and Butter. Zoellin takes the freshest beef and then grinds just the right amount of bacon into it. He adds some Worcestershire sauce, forgoes the salt, sears it, flips it, seasons it and sends it out with thick bacon, gouda cheese, crisp and light shallot rings and smoked aioli. For all that plus fries or salad and a rather astounding photo you can post on Facebook or Instagram, it's just $12.50.
For lightness and elegance at lunch without easing up on the flavors, try a salad with mixed greens so fresh and crisp and flavorful you might think your seat at the window came with a view of the farm. B and B's roasted beets salad with shaved fennel and goat cheese or the avocado-and-mushroom salad offers mixes of textures and complementary flavors – earthy, bitter, a touch of sweetness.
Say what you will about the name of this restaurant – we've heard "weird," we've heard "awesome," we'll accept "horrendous" – but this dude can cook some food, with or without his two favorite ingredients, bacon and butter.
Zoellin's menus are so good because his cooking is so forceful. His food has power and finesse and daring. After many meals that showed flashes of greatness, plenty of goodness and only the smallest of missteps (one omelet showed signs of browning), I've come to view his style as macho meets elegant.
Zoellin, as you may know by now, is the chef who catapulted out of nowhere into the spotlight two years ago by getting the Golden Bear, a humble midtown bar, onto the hit show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."
"Genius!" Guy Fieri exclaimed with his mouth full as Zoellin worked his magic in the tiny kitchen back then. Smoked slaw-and-sausage pizza. Duck confit club sandwich. A banh mi with jalapeño aioli. Zoellin was "rockin' out handmade gastro-pub food" with the kitchen equivalent of an Easy Bake Oven.
It wasn't all fame and fortune after that. Zoellin left the Golden Bear, searching for new and bigger ways to express himself. Already, he had learned from three of the best in the business. He worked for Biba Caggiano as a busboy when he was a teen, for Randall Selland doing salad prep as his first kitchen gig, and for Patrick Mulvaney as line cook.
How did he land those jobs? He showed up and looked hungry. The guy has moxie. And he's still hungry.
We can see plenty of Mulvaney's influence in Zoellin's food, in the way he showcases local and regional farms, and by how he eschews shortcuts and gimmicks to make the food sing.
Just look at how he builds flavor with his smashed potatoes: The water in which he poaches them contains salt, onions, bay leaves and garlic. His grilled-cheese sandwich has five kinds of cheese, a thick strip of bacon and, in homage to the Squeeze Inn's cheese skirt, a rather amazing caramelized "cheese blanket" that envelopes the massive sandwich.
Like Mulvaney, Zoellin's food is more rustic or hearty than prissy or precious.
But Bacon and Butter is very Billy Zoellin. While he's a chef with serious chops and plenty of determination, he's not yet the restaurateur Caggiano, Selland and Mulvaney have proved to be.
Since building his following, Zoellin has been plagued by, well, his following. The surge of people at his restaurant for Sunday brunch has sometimes been overwhelming.
During my first brunch visit, when I was told the wait would be 45 minutes, we went across the street to Time Tested Books. Turns out, I could have polished off "Gravity's Rainbow" before getting the chance to polish off Zoellin's French toast with rhubarb sauce or the breakfast burger (essentially the same incredible burger, but this time topped with an egg cooked sunny side up). When we returned to the restaurant, we were told it would be another 45 minutes by the hostess who by then was in a zombielike trance.
As the months passed and the weekend crowds continued, Bacon and Butter has improved its time management. Still, there is simply not enough time to manage the onslaught. Thus, I would not recommend visiting on a Sunday unless you are very patient. For groups of eight or more, Bacon and Butter takes reservations and will serve your meal family style, meaning you'll get plenty of second helpings for many menu items, though not the bacon (it's high-end and pricey).
Zoellin is also not a computer geek. For a 20-something chef, it's startling that he has no website, doesn't do Twitter and has a limited presence on Facebook.
But would you rather have a chef who can cook? Or one who can tweet?
The service is getting better. Our two latest visits ranged from pretty good to very good service. That lunchtime when we muttered those expletives about the hamburger? We might have saved a few for our server, who was so laid back I thought my credit card might expire before he brought us our check.
Clearly, this concept is a steppingstone for Zoellin, who will someday serve dinner somewhere. He is sharing B and B's space for now with a bar called Barfly, so he's limited to breakfast and lunch.
That's too bad, but we won't hold it against him. For the purposes of this review, we are judging based on what he offers now. While we're not ready to echo Guy Fieri and call Zoellin's food "genius," we're certainly willing to bet that greatness is well within his grasp.
And we stand by what we said about the *&%$#@! burger.
BACON AND BUTTER
1119 21st St., Sacramento
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Beverage options: No liquor license (but good coffee)
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, believe it or not
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Overall: Three stars (out of four stars)
With an exciting and sometimes daring farm-to-table menu, a talented chef and a lively midtown vibe, Bacon and Butter is thriving as a destination for breakfast, brunch and lunch. The long waits on Sundays may be a turn-off for some, but there are other days – and other ways – to enjoy this place and appreciate its vast potential.
Food: Three 1/2 stars
Don't miss the fantastic burger, the grilled-cheese sandwich featuring a "cheese blanket," the omelets stuffed with cheese and seasonal produce, and the pancakes. But the salads and meatless options are also delicious ways to go. For a hearty breakfast with plenty of finesse, don't miss the pork belly hash.
Service Two 1/2 stars We're noticing improvements – better knowledge of the cooking and ingredients, more attention to detail. This place gets flooded on weekends and timing issues are bound to come up, but that's not always the fault of the servers.
Ambience: Three stars
It's a big room, bright and lively, with touches of shabby chic. When it's crowded and running on all cylinders, it's a good way to see eclectic Sacramento at its best.
Value: Four stars
When you consider the quality of the ingredients and the cooking, the value is outstanding. Everything on the menu is under $15. Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.
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