Best bets (and beets!) during Sacramento’s Dine Downtown Restaurant Week

Carla Meyer

The 11th Dine Downtown central-city restaurant celebration kicks off tonight and runs through Jan. 16. Thirty Sacramento restaurants are offering three-course, $35 prix fixe menus (tax, tip and drinks not included).

For every meal sold, $1 goes to the Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit that educates low-income children about cooking, nutrition and food’s relationship to health, community and the environment.

The Firehouse and nearly every other Old Sacramento food establishment that isn’t a taffy shop are participating, as are most of their stone’s-throw neighbors in the Capitol vicinity, including Grange, Ella, Blackbird, Chops, Mayahuel and Esquire Grill.

Dine Downtown then stretches the boundaries of “downtown” to midtown neighborhood restaurants such as Hook & Ladder before extending further, to east Sacramento huggers Biba and Paragary’s.

With so many high-end restaurants participating, Dine Downtown lets diners benefit children’s food education while broadening their own culinary horizons. The event accommodates those food lovers who always wanted to experience the nuances of Biba Caggiano’s Italian recipes or the old-school swank of The Firehouse but lack the stacks of cash such excursions usually require.

Dine Downtown also is a low-risk way to try out revamped or brand-new Sacramento restaurants. For instance, Paragary’s, which reopened this past summer after a $1 million makeover, is offering a very attractive prix fixe menu.

Among starter options are a kale and white bean soup, with farro and ham hock, that sounds hearty and nourishing. Main-course choices include duck-leg confit-and-pork belly and fish and shellfish stew in a spicy tomato broth.

My current favorite new restaurants Empress Tavern and Localis also are on board, with Empress offering a winter citrus salad as first course, roasted Cornish game hen or smoked cavatelli as second and “seasonal pie” to finish. The seasonal pie – German chocolate with cream and cake layers and Amarena cherries in syrup – is spectacular.

Localis is serving a beets tray for its first course and beef cheeks for its second. Though I have not tried the cheeks, I can recommend the beets.

The plate holds several different types of beets, cooked in different ways (including salt-baked and fried), with a goat cheese mousse and truffle vinaigrette. Localis chef and co-owner Chris Barnum, who also is a musician, calls this course “Beats.”

“I wanted to take a single instrument and write something cool with it,” Barnum said.

Having perused all the Dine Downtown menus, the one that stands out as a true bargain comes not from a new or particularly hip place. Unless you count pre-Music Circus dinners with grandma as hip.

But I’ve always held a soft spot for the Melting Pot fondue restaurant – particularly for its coq au vin preparation and for imparting important lessons (to carry through the education theme) about patience by forcing me to cook my own potatoes.

The Melting Pot’s prix fixe menu, which includes cheese, entrée and chocolate courses – what more could one need at a fondue place? – seems like a steal for $35.

To find out about participating restaurants, visit Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s Dine Downtown page.