I ate and drank very well in 2014. Sure, there were a few disastrous dishes and a few places that failed to live up to expectations. But, overall, this was a year of stability and quality for the local dining scene.
I had many meals that were what I like to think of as “very Sacramento.” It’s popular to call that “farm to fork” these days. But what it really means is there is a style and substance in the conception, cooking, presentation and eating that says something special about where we live.
There are many restaurants that do that very well these days, whether it’s American, Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai or some some kind of fusion. Among my favorite dining experiences this year were Grange downtown at the Citizen Hotel and Carpe Vino in Auburn. Both places serve excellent food sourced from local farms. In Auburn, chef Eric Alexander even grows much of his own produce.
The less-than-stellar dining experiences happen for a number of reasons. The primary cause is almost always because the restaurant either doesn’t know what it wants to be or is trying to sell us on a concept that doesn’t ring true. The best food – the best experience – always feels real and unforced.
What follows is a rundown of what I ate, what I loved and what I would rather soon forget. For those who wonder about these kinds of things: No, I didn’t get any food poisoning this year, and no, I didn’t gain any weight.
100 dishes, and then some
Mother, a new vegetarian restaurant, opened for business in early 2014, and I was the fourth customer on the first day. I sensed right away that this place was going to be very special. Led by owner/chef Michael Thiemann and his wife, Lisa, along with executive chef Matt Masera, it was a restaurant that was challenging itself to be something profound and exciting.
Thiemann somehow knew my identity and, after a couple of early visits, sent me a text message and a challenge. If I came to the restaurant 10 times, he and Masera would serve 10 unique dishes each time, for a total of 100. They brainstormed and cooked. I ate and ate.
One week, I ate at Mother five nights in a row (50 dishes), often stopping in at nearby Ella Dining Room & Bar for a Negroni beforehand. It was like a dream. I ate everything from simple butter pasta with black Périgord truffle to cedar-roasted hearts of palm. Not only was the food tremendous and the 100 dishes a great creative achievement, but I learned plenty about flavors and balance, about seasonality and sourcing, and I grew as a restaurant critic along the way.
The Broderick touch
Trick Pony and Capital Dime were on the brink when the two partners reached out to Broderick owners Chris Jarosz and Matt Chong to take over day-to-day operations. By November, these two near-disasters were three-star restaurants and were no longer a foodie punchline.
Two tasty taquerias
In May, I told you about humble La Rosa, a taqueria that operates as part of a small grocery store in West Sacramento. Owner Jesus Arjon cooks the various marinated meats on a large metal cooking disc, or “disco,” and it is quite a sight. The flavors and aromas are a representation of his upbringing in Guadalajara, Mexico. Try the tacos with steak, chicken, pork, lengua or tripe.
The greatest revelation for me with Mexican food happened only recently, when I got wind of a place called Mi Lindo Apatzingan. Simply put, for a casual eatery, it has some of the best Mexican food I have ever tasted. The flavors are so expressive, so dialed in, that tasting the food becomes an inspiration.
Owned by two sisters, Veronica and Marisol Hermosillo, this joint’s signature dish is the molcajete, featuring a variety of meat and green-beanlike cactus in a very spicy, nuanced and delicious broth. All of the dishes are superb, especially the tacos on house-made corn tortillas, the chile Colorado, chile relleno and the spicy shrimp dish camarones a la diabla.
Ho-hum in Sloughhouse
It has such potential for greatness. The wood-paneled dining room at Sloughouse Inn is a thing of beauty, so warm and historic. The setting is rural, with all kinds of farms and produce nearby.
The restaurant? It felt very factory-to-fork. The food lacked personality. The kitchen lacked passion. The quality was substandard. The restaurant’s entire sense of purpose seemed to be path of least resistance.
This place could be such a destination dining experience. From what I saw in February, however, it’s a restaurant in need of a makeover.
Japanese food done well
While the Sacramento area now seems to have an overabundance of sushi, there was a time when raw fish and rice was new and exotic in this city. In fact, lots of people thought it was just plain weird. Nagato Sukiyaki (now on Marconi) has been around 44 years and continues to operate at a very high level.
The tempura is always superb. The sushi is high quality. The beef sukiyaki, served in a large bowl with glassy noodles and vegetables in a kombu broth, is worth ordering, especially during this chilly, wet winter. The unagi don (broiled eel served over rice) is rich and tender and delicious. I highly recommend you try it.
And not so well
When Sushi Paradiso opened earlier in 2014, it was going to be a high-end dining experience, and the sushi, we were told, was going to be impeccably sourced. Then reality set in. People were not connecting. The dining room at night was often empty.
Sushi Paradiso responded by going downscale, offering 50 percent off sushi rolls. One night, when the shrimp appeared to be off-color, our sushi chef came to our table to inspect the food after we asked if it was safe to eat. He hesitated for a moment and said: “You should be OK.” As I wrote in my review, we weren’t reassured by his answer.
Old-school tapas on the grid
The midtown grid is where many new and exciting restaurants have flourished in recent years. But don’t forget about the classic. Aioli Bodega Espanola isn’t trendy, but it is definitely cool.
That’s because great service and quality food – in this case, plenty of excellent tapas and larger entrees – don’t go out of style. Recommended dishes include mussels in white wine and short ribs and chorizo with white beans. If the super-tender, nearly velvety beef tongue happens to be on the menu, give it a shot.
New-school tapas in Granite Bay
While Aioli continues to thrive by sticking to its tradition of quality, a much newer tapas-style restaurant in Granite Bay excels by trying new twists on the classics and doing them at a very high level. The most memorable dish at Source is the white anchovies with giant beans. So delicious. This restaurant is destined to be even better in the years ahead and is certainly one to watch.
Big things in Little Saigon
If you’re an adventurous eater, the lively stretch along Stockton Boulevard known as Little Saigon is probably on your radar already. If not, get out there and explore.
Among the revelations this year in that area was Thien Phu, a Vietnamese restaurant that showed it understands the wants and needs of a contemporary audience by having friendly, outgoing service, a bright and neat dining area and, best of all, delicious food, including several goat dishes.
The Boiling Crab, a tiny chain, is not necessarily an ethnic restaurant, but it attracts a very diverse clientele. It’s fun, delicious and messy. The crab is served in these large clear plastic bags, and you take it out piece by piece, crack the shells and slurp up the meat.
I gave Yang’s Noodles a very solid review earlier this year. Then the restaurant got busy, was sold and the new owner revamped the place. The new look and improved service prompted me to elevate the review to four stars, our highest rating. The Szechuan boiled fish soup, with its exceptionally red-hot broth and abundance of fish and napa cabbage, may be my very favorite soup in town. Its main competition? Yang’s beef noodle soup. Try them both and get back to me.
Changes for The Kitchen
I downgraded the rating for The Kitchen, the one-of-a-kind performance-style restaurant this year, mostly because I thought the performance lacked vitality and the food, while often very good, didn’t live up to the $135 price tag.
Not long after that review, The Kitchen parted ways with the new chef, John Griffiths, and promoted David Chavez, who has years of experience with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.
In a town that is showcasing more and more food that is local and seasonal and real, no place says Sacramento more than this place. As we look forward to a great 2015 of eating and drinking, we will be revisiting this local icon to see if the latest changes have it back in the realm of greatness.