Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Strings Urban Kitchen a find in downtown Sacramento

Pasta Mediterranean is a signature dish at Strings Urban Kitchen. Its marinara has an intriguing “hint of curry.”
Pasta Mediterranean is a signature dish at Strings Urban Kitchen. Its marinara has an intriguing “hint of curry.” apierleoni@sacbee.com

We sat at a patio table at Strings Urban Kitchen, a dramatically handsome restaurant in downtown Sacramento with a reasonably priced Italian cuisine-centric menu and an impressive wine list. It opened 11 months ago on the ground floor of the Capitol Towers luxury-apartments complex (where a penthouse goes for $4,000 a month).

The menu shows appetizers (stuffed mushrooms, french fries with garlic and Parmesan), soups (seafood tomato bisque), salads, panini (meatball, eggplant Parmesan), pizzas (the Ella has bacon, egg and white truffle oil) and pasta dishes in many incarnations – with seafood, with pork and beef, with veggies ($4.50 to $22).

In the first act, a big bowl of steamed clams showed up, the fragrant aromas of garlic and white wine wafting from the rich broth.

“I’m the daughter of two marine biologists, and I eat fish and shrimp, but I don’t do clams or mussels,” said lunch pal Edie Lambert. But she did join a second lunch pal and me in dipping two orders of toasted and well-seasoned slices of Acme bread into the broth, one of the best we’ve encountered. Oh, and the succulent clams were excellent.

Edie is an Emmy-winning KCRA-Channel 3 news anchor whose empathetic yet professional persona has made her a regular guest in Sacramento homes. She’s been around – Hawaii, Bermuda, Japan, Europe – and knows good food when she sees it. For more about her, go to www.sacbee.com/appetizers.

Let’s pause between courses to answer a question: Are there any, uh, strings attached between Strings Urban Kitchen and the more downscale 20-unit Strings Italian Cafe franchise operation?

“It’s not a part of the Strings chain at all; we’re loosely affiliated (by a business association),” said wine director-general manager Michael Chandler. He’s a member of the London-based Guild of Master Sommeliers and the sommelier and brand manager of RailBridge Cellars, Sacramento’s first urban winery. He’s worked with the wine programs at the long-gone David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods, Enotria Wine Bar (now Cask & Barrel) and Matteo’s Bistro, which maintains an ever-changing cellar.

The “business association” that led to Strings Urban Kitchen is between Chandler, RailBridge managing partner Michael Gelber and Strings Italian Cafe founder Al Decaprio.

“We wanted to get (Al’s Strings concept) to the next level and give it a fresh twist,” Gelber said. “We worked for months on the menu, which is more (high-end) and not ‘unlimited bread and salad.’”

Back at our table, a platter of colorful bruschetta arrived, a pile of sweet, bright-red heirloom grape tomatoes with garlic, cheese spread, micro-basil and extra-virgin olive oil topping crunchy seasoned toasts. We paired them with minestrone (pasta, zucchini, celery, onion) in a delicate broth. Somehow, they both vanished.

Next up was the star of the show, a bowl of pasta Mediterranean, a signature dish. Thin spaghetti is splashed with marinara sauce and an intriguing “hint of curry,” and topped with perfectly cooked prawns, coins of spicy Italian sausage, tomato, basil and Parmesan.

“This is unusual and spectacular,” Edie said. “I love it.”

Dessert was rather dense mini-cinnamon doughnuts sitting in chocolate syrup, with cups of caramel and raspberry sauces for dipping – a clunky ending to a refined lunch.

Note that Strings Urban Kitchen holds wine-tastings from 5 to 7 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of each month.

Edie had to dash to the studio, but later sent an email: “Our family get-togethers are often centered around a shared love for and interest in good food and everything that goes into it. … I thought the food and ambiance (at Strings Urban Kitchen) were unique enough to make it a spot I would recommend to friends.”

Now for the breaking news: We agree.

Returning to Skip’s

We were reminded again the other night why we like Skip’s Kitchen. One reason is energetic owner Skip Wahl, who understands the importance of connecting with customers. He’s a sincere schmoozer who loves kids and will spontaneously sit at tables and chat with their parents, even though the place is usually slammed.

Other reasons we return: Skip’s grilled-cheese sandwich (cheddar, Swiss, provolone, American) with fresh basil and tomato on sourdough; a turkey sandwich heaped with shredded meat from brined and house-roasted fowl; and the mushroom-Swiss burger with crunchy onion rings on the side.

Get them at 4717 El Camino Ave., Carmichael; (916) 514-0830, www.skipskitchen.com.

Afterward, we dropped by the Parlor, whose highfalutin mission statement says: “Our variety of custom ice cream flavors, toppings and options in which to contain said items offer you a unique opportunity to bring your wildest dessert dreams to life. We currently offer a myriad of mixtures to conceptualize a personalized experience … (of) eccentric creations …”

Translated, that means you choose from eight flavors of Gunther’s ice cream (sea salt-caramel, coffee-Nutella, vanilla-cinnamon), select a pastry (plain doughnut, glazed doughnut, apple fritter) and toppings (gummy bears, almonds, Oreo bits, coffee bits, bacon bits, Nutella), and wait while a staffer assembles your creation into a “sandwich” of sorts. Essentially, the Parlor’s “ice-cream puff” has updated the wardrobe of the classic cream puff, in an entertaining and delicious way.

Get them at 2620 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 977-3997, www.theparloricecream.com.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Strings Urban Kitchen

On the ground floor of Capitol Towers, 1500 Seventh St. (corner of Seventh and N streets), Sacramento

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays. Brunch is 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.

Food:

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 444-6500, www.stringsurbankitchen.com

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