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A $20,000 smoker and one busy 2017 for new restaurant power couple

Deneb Williams and Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou have spent years working at two of the best restaurants in Sacramento, but their longtime dream has been to pool their talents as restaurant owners.

Williams, for a decade the executive chef at the renowned Firehouse Restaurant, resigned last March to start creating a business plan for not one, but three restaurants, pulling together financing and hunting for the right property. Mandalou, the assistant sommelier at Ella Dining Room and Bar, recently left to join her husband as the two move full speed ahead on the first of the restaurants they plan to open in 2017.

A visit to the building in North Sacramento that for years housed the well-known Enotria restaurant and wine bar found the city’s newest restaurant power couple hustling to address all kinds of details as they ready to open Woodlake Tavern in early January.

The kitchen staff was busy cooking test batches of food, including meats in a new $20,000 smoker parked just outside the kitchen door.

“I think in every professional’s life you have that moment where you decide to continue what you’ve been doing or you make the leap,” said Williams while taking a break at the newly remodeled space where the tavern will be. “We have a deep passion for the restaurant business. Autonomy is the next and final evolution of what we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

The Enotria building on Del Paso Boulevard, featuring a large patio in back, will actually become two restaurants. The second concept, Uptown Pizza, is slated to open in April. A third, more upscale restaurant, to be called Allora, will be in the former Rust Florist building on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento. It is scheduled to open in September.

“Woodlake Tavern is a concept we came up with after really letting the space talk to us,” Williams said. “This is a very eclectic neighborhood. It has a huge demographic population from lower income to middle income to even some higher income. … Great food doesn’t have to be fine dining. We can bring the same passion and the same experience to causal dining food as we have done with fine dining our whole careers.

“Woodlake Tavern is all about craft and comfort — craft cocktails using the very best ingredients, comfort food using the very best technique and ingredients, but delivered in a way that’s very approachable, with price points that can really take a broad stroke to appeal to everybody.”

While three restaurants in one calendar year might seem like a daunting, if not overwhelming ordeal, the couple said that in this case it was a matter of the right properties coming available at the right time.

Mandalou said she will be at Woodlake Tavern while the other two restaurants are being built out. She’ll then spend the bulk of her time at Allora once it opens. Williams will be culinary director at all three restaurants and will run the kitchen at Uptown Pizza at the outset.

Mandalou said the couple’s skill sets are complementary and she expects that working together as a couple and eventually juggling three restaurants will go smoothly.

“Deneb and I are believers in divide and conquer. I’m not checking up on what he’s doing and he trusts me to know what I’m doing,” she said. “We will bounce ideas of each other like we do at home, but we have that autonomy to make our own decisions.

“Working together has been wonderful,” Williams added. “We have the types of temperaments where we’re problem solvers. We respect each other’s boundaries. We respect each other’s talent. Most importantly, it’s all about taking care of the guest.”

One thing they both feel strongly about is that the building itself, known for its dated carpet, beige walls and an overall dated aesthetic, is due for a significant rebranding and a major transformation. Think urban and edgy and maybe a bit funky – not unlike the neighborhood itself – with music and art to match.

Emily McCuiston has been enlisted to oversee the redesign and to handle the branding for the three restaurants. In the Woodlake Tavern kitchen, Matthew Stauss has moved from The Firehouse, where he was Williams’ longtime sous chef, and has been named executive chef. Woodlake’s sous chef is Aaron Anderson, whose experience includes owning the catering company Purple Pig Eats.

The back part of the building, still weeks away from its design overhaul, will be completely separate and called Uptown Pizza.

“My first restaurant, when I was in my early 20s, was a brewpub in Wyoming, and we made pizza, calzones and panini sandwiches, and we brewed our own beer,” said Williams. “Since that time, I have loved that combination of culinary styles and attitude. Uptown Pizza is going to be a fast/casual concept. It’s going to be easy and fun. There’s going to be TVs on the wall to watch the game. There’s going to be a great craft beer selection. And our pizzas are going to be amazing. We are going to do a Paleo (low-carb) pizza. We are going to do organic dough. We are going to source our ingredients with the same type of attention to detail that we have always done in fine dining.”

The pizzeria will also make fresh pasta in-house and, behind the scenes, will serve as a test kitchen for Allora, which is still nine-plus months from opening.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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