See high-concept Allora’s exquisite dishes and inviting setting
It took me a few visits to warm up to Allora, East Sacramento’s reserved and refined new modern Italian seafood restaurant and wine bar. Opened in February by a Sacramento-restaurant power couple — chef Deneb Williams (formerly of The Firehouse) and sommelier Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou (formerly of Ella Dining Room and Bar) — it occupies the brick building on Folsom Boulevard that once was home to Rust Florist.
The building, which sports plate-glass windows and a corner location, is immediately inviting; the restaurant, with its high concept, high price point and exquisitely wrought food, reveals its considerable charms more slowly.
Like another Folsom Boulevard restaurant, Kru, Allora is upscale and formal for a neighborhood place. Its lovely setting includes gorgeous green-velvet chairs and a towering glass wine cellar at its heart. Service and hosting are practiced and courtly. Though I spotted some diners in jeans, and I wore a summer dress on my first visit (a drop-in Wednesday-night supper), I felt distinctly under-dressed, a rarity in Sacramento. By the way, reservations are a must, though extra seating is available in the bar.
Allora’s nearest neighbor, casual beer and sandwich spot The Shack, is its polar opposite in feel and mood. Williams and Mandalou, who live in the neighborhood, had gone there for lunch one day and spotted the vacant Rust Florist building. Williams said he immediately saw the potential. However, the building's owners took some persuading to turn the space into a restaurant. Williams and Mandalou took on the lease in 2016.
Williams and Mandalou also operate Woodlake Tavern and Uptown Pizza Kitchen, adjacent to each other on Del Paso Boulevard in the former Enotria building. Both of those operations, according to Williams, were conceived of after the pair signed the lease on the space that became Allora, but they opened much faster because the building had been restaurant-space previously.
Allora's name comes from an Italian interjection that’s hard to define, but can be used to reveal what’s next, to express delight, or just as a conversational pause like English's “well." (The word notably was featured in a Felliniesque episode of Aziz Ansari’s sitcom “Master of None”). The restaurant's build-out was long and complex, requiring a from-scratch kitchen, the dramatic and highly custom wine cellar and an added-on patio. The finished restaurant seats 65 inside, including at a central communal table, and an additional 35 on the secluded patio, edged by vertical planters currently sporting edible flowers and sinuous pea shoots.
Such pea shoots and pansies show up as flourishes on many dishes. Williams’ fine dining experience shows on every plate, in visually stunning garnishes and such colorful effects as the brilliant dots and squiggles of sauces adorning a half-moon of creamy semolina-based gnocchi alla Romana. The menu’s strong tilt toward seafood (most sourced through local dealer Sunh Fish) is a distinctive and welcome addition to the dining landscape.
Mandalou’s sommelier background is equally apparent in the tightly focused wine list, which leans to Italian varietals, some of which likely will be unfamiliar to casual wine fans. I was glad to sample a restrained, strawberry-scented Lambrusco, a sparkling red that has suffered from a poor reputation thanks to a long-ago flood of cheap, sugary imports. (Remember Riunite?) Value-priced Greek varieties, a nod to Mandalou’s heritage, are another unusual strength.
The staff is thoroughly trained on the list, adept with suggesting pairings and eager to pour tastes for uncertain guests. Mandalou is also a constant presence in the front of the house for those needing wine advice.
Allora lacks a full liquor license, but in addition to beer and wine, it also serves wine-based cocktails, many relying on bitter aperitifs and aromatized wines. A pompelmo fizz, with grapefruit bitters, was ultra-light; Il Corso was deeper, darker, and astringent, the restaurant’s take on a Manhattan, according to my server. The cocktails were fun diversions, but the wines deserve the spotlight.
The menu offers several sections: a raw bar with crudos and oysters; small plates; a couple of salads (called, rather preciously, “local greens and roots”); “housemade pasta and locally grown Arborio” (Italian short-grained rice); and mains, which on my visits had three fish dishes and two meats. (Vegetarians should look to the pasta section.)
My first meal opened with pesce marinato, atop a sweet pea panna cotta, from the raw bar. Overly harsh with citrus, the fish was like an Italianate ceviche, and its acerbity drowned the satiny, subtle panna cotta. More balanced was my companion’s small plate of insalata di mare, with asparagus and mixed shellfish, including crab, mussels, shrimp and calamari.
On another visit, the pesce marinato had disappeared from the raw-bar menu, giving way to a tuna crudo with smoked egg, caperberries and olives, finely minced atop the jewel-like tiles of tuna. The best raw-bar item I sampled, however, came on my third visit, and it was a sleeper hit simply titled “Asparagus." It consisted of five peeled stalks of white and green asparagus accompanied by a light cloud of sublime smoked aioli, a scattering of crisp tiny cubes of pancetta and the aromatic note of powdered herbs.
The dish was a superb illustration of Williams' elevated technique, and I would have happily eaten that dish a second time for my main course. Priced at $11 (or more than $2 per stalk of asparagus), however, the dish pointed up a concern I had about Allora, which is priced and decorated like a downtown special-occasion place: Can it sustain its high-end vision with its neighborhood location, albeit an admittedly upscale one?
Perhaps the addition of brunch service (launched immediately after the dining for this review was completed) and lunch, planned in a few weeks’ time, will help add a more relaxed vibe. On the other hand, the availability of an $85 five-course chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings points in a more premium direction.
If there’s a place to scale back, I think it might be in the garnishes and extras of some dishes. Williams and his associates in the kitchen cook with a sure hand — a swordfish dish I had was the best-cooked, juiciest piece of that fish I have ever tasted — but have a tendency to gild the lily.
The swordfish arrived with tender clams, braised fennel, almonds and ramp oil — all promised on the menu —but also with a thick, peppery cream sauce, pieces of what tasted like endive and some baffling white beans. That perfect piece of fish almost got lost in the shuffle. It often feels like the kitchen is trying to impress with extra frills, but their solid skill makes the effort unnecessary.
Similarly, a chunk of big-eye tuna from the main dishes came with savory romesco and sweet peas, which would have been enough. The additional greens and more cluttered the plate. Two thick slices of pork tenderloin, wrapped in speck (Italian ham), suffered from a different problem — over-salting — though the creamy bed of whey polenta and green snap of favas and peas lent pleasing spring flavors.
Many dishes, however, were gussied up just enough that they sparkled. The polpo appetizer starred sous vide octopus cooked to perfect tenderness, then crisped with a faintly sweet glaze and perched on a pool of ink with cheesy little gnocchi. The dish was easy to love.
A strawberry and beet salad offered sweetness balanced by the tart surprise of green strawberries and the gamy note of shaved caprino, an aged goat cheese. Agnolotti (similar to small ravioli) with nettle puree and spring vegetables was a bright, fresh dish.
Among the simpler dishes, a toothsome bucatini pasta with a golden cream sauce showed off the oceanic depth of sea urchin and crab. Little Gem salad, dusted with egg and sharp with anchovy, was Allora’s version of a Caesar, and it was just about flawless.
Desserts, together with a list of dessert wines, are taken as seriously as the rest of the menu here. On my first visit, an olive-oil cake’s sharp, silken citrus curd compensated for the slight dryness of the cake itself. (It was served chilled, which I think did the crumb a disservice.) Bomboloni (resembling doughnut holes) filled with huckleberry jam could have used a little more huckleberry, but who wants to quarrel with doughnuts fried to order?
A glorious torta di nocciole featured a cylinder of melting chocolate-hazelnut mousse atop a moist square of hazelnut cake, with a housemade ice cream and scattered salty hazelnut crunch. I don’t really like hazelnuts, but I couldn’t stop eating it. Housemade gelati are solid bets: The dark chocolate, a hefty scoop, had a puddinglike texture. I appreciated the noble effort in a dish of umami-bomb parmesan ice cream, a surprisingly good experiment with just a light sweetness.
Parmesan got a different treatment on my third visit, in a dish that truly blew me away. It was a surprise: the seemingly unassuming risotto, hiding in plain sight on the menu. Its description says merely “parmesan, parmesan, parmesan,” which turns out to mean it’s cooked in a parmesan brodo (or broth), anointed with parmesan cream and topped with a whisper-thin, tawny parmesan crisp. (A word about that “local Arborio”: It’s really more regional, grown in the area but not furnished by a single supplier, according to my server.)
Our server, affable and garrulous about the nuances of the menu, offered a supplement of shaved summer truffle for my risotto. (One of his few failures was not disclosing the price of this flourish; it turned out to be $10.)
Cooking risotto, a famously fussy dish, just so in a restaurant setting, is no small feat, and in this precise, intensely savory dish, every grain was expressive, resisting the tooth and then melting away. Subtle truffles augmented the creamy flavor. Like the asparagus starter earlier in the meal, it was a shockingly good dish.
Those two dishes turned me from a dispassionate diner, appreciating what Williams and Mandalou are offering on an intellectual level, into a fan who couldn’t wait to scoop up my next bite.
At first blush, Allora can come across as aloof and bound by its own ambition — in short, a little uptight. If it can relax its attitude a touch, without relaxing its standards, this beautifully conceived and extraordinarily promising restaurant can — allora — claim a spot among Sacramento's most elite establishments.
Email Kate Washington at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
5215 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento. 916-538-6434.
Hours: 5–9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Wine, wine-based cocktails and beer, with a sophisticated wine program focused on Italian varietals and a smattering of rarely seen Greek wines. The staff is well trained in wine pairings and sommelier-part owner Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou offers guidance.
Vegetarian friendly: Not especially. A few dishes are vegetarian or can be made so by omitting garnishes, but the menu leans heavily to seafood.
Gluten-free options: Some, though it’s not a strong focus and the menu features many pastas.
Noise levels: There’s a pleasant background buzz, but conversation is comfortable and audible at normal volume, thanks in part to some acoustically friendly design touches.
Ambiance: Soigné and upscale in the dining room, with a window from the bar into the quietly efficient kitchen. Though Allora isn’t a white-tablecloth place (tables feature an inlaid emerald-like stripe that matches the swoonworthy green-velvet chairs), it feels formal enough to be one. A patio, surrounded by vertical plantings of edible flowers and herbs, is more laid-back.
Ambitious and refined, Allora has carved out a niche no other restaurant in town attempts: modern Italian seafood and wine bar. It can feel just a touch fussy and formal, despite its neighborhood setting, but some extraordinary dishes and the strong wine list make it worth getting to know.
Many dishes are spot on: tender sous vide octopus with crisped edges and velvety ink, a revelatory asparagus starter, shockingly good and ultra-simple parmesan risotto. Chef-owner Deneb Williams can sometimes misfire, however, by gilding the lily so that dishes feel overwrought.
Highly professional, impeccably timed and so well trained that servers, if anything, err on the side of offering too much information about dishes and wines. The guidance, however, is largely welcome, especially with a lineup of wine varietals and some ingredients that may be unfamiliar for guests.
Prices are high and portions small, so the bill can add up fast. Expect to pay $10-20 for starters, in the $20-25 range for pastas, and $30 or more for entrees. Many by-the-glass wine selections, however, are good value at just $10-12.