Allen Pierleoni

The food and drinks twist and turn at the Independent

Blackened salmon tacos at The Independent in Placerville
Blackened salmon tacos at The Independent in Placerville apierleoni@sacbee.com

The day after Thanksgiving is usually devoted to leftovers, hangovers and the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday, so you likely won’t be dining out. You’d be wise, though, to bookmark the Independent Restaurant and Bar in Placerville for future reference. It’s the 5-year-old sister of the popular 10-year-old Heyday Cafe, and like all siblings they have their differences.

“The Heyday menu is eclectic, with Italian and French influences,” said co-owner Jeff Thoma (with wife Judy Thoma). “It’s focused around the wine, with pairings in mind.”

The Independent – owned by the Thomas and their son, Ben Carter – is “more a traditional bar and grill with sautéed items, buttermilk fried chicken and a lot of meat coming off the grill.”

The layout of the Independent is three-dimensional: There’s the bright and cheery bar with more bottles lined up than we recall seeing since a visit to the Bacardi factory in Puerto Rico.

Frosted glass panels separate the dining room booths from the bar area. The walls are done in paint that might have been labeled “Depressing Brown” (echoed by the floors), a remarkable mismatch with the imaginative spirit of the “American fusion” offerings. The third part, an outdoor patio, presumably comes alive after dark, given the multitude of heat lamps.

Exploring the top-shelf libations menu can take a while. We counted 10 microbrews on tap, 13 bottled beers, 11 white and 20 red wines, 21 liqueurs, 13 tequilas, nine bourbons, five ryes – like that.

The reveal, though, was the list of 25 specialty cocktails with exotic names and ingredients. Is 911 on your speed dial? “We want to be leading-edge,” Jeff Thoma said. “If somebody comes from the city, they can appreciate our selection.”

As much as an upscale saloon as the Independent appears to be, the lunch menu is a study in style and exploration ($6 to $18). For instance, the burger is ground from Montana-sourced Hereford beef, not the usual Angus. Flash-fried calamari comes with basil marinara and lemon-caper aioli. A pastrami sandwich is dressed up with Dijon aioli and poblano peppers. Sauces are made from scratch.

First up at our booth was earthy mushroom soup, a heap of meaty sliced mushrooms in a deeply flavored broth that got better with each spoonful. Next was crispy, slightly oily tempura prawns with honey-sambal (Indonesian hot sauce) and small-batch blue cheese-spiked coleslaw. The secret ingredient that made the coating on the fried shrimp so light was vodka.

“I never met a tempura prawn I really liked until now,” said one lunch pal. Added another, “I like the slaw because the blue cheese stayed in the background.”

Excellent grilled prawns, white candied walnuts and red strawberries gave color and flavor to an attractive salad of mixed greens, but the feta cheese was a no-show. Flavorful raspberry vinaigrette was the right match.

A plate of thinly sliced leeks in light, crisp batter look marvelous, but became oily as they cooled. We eagerly dipped the mildly flavored rings into a ramekin of pale wasabi-coconut creme, which lacked both heat and sweet. Better was a trio of other sauces – chipotle aioli, Cajun barbecue and blue cheese.

We wolfed the blackened salmon tacos, big chunks of expertly spiced fresh fish, chipotle aioli, cabbage, cilantro and salsa in warm tortillas. The unexpected bonus on the plate was a mound of perfectly cooked saffroned basmati rice.

Pulled pork shows up on too many menus, given its varying quality. The Independent’s moist-crispy shredded and sautéed pork shoulder on ciabatta was a winner, with crisp bits of fried onion and jalapeño slaw.

We agreed the lean half-pound Hereford burger should have been a show-stopper but wasn’t, despite Thoma’s later description: “(The patty) is house-ground (from trim) off our filet mignon, New York, skirt and rib-eye steaks. The flavor (of Hereford beef) is more ‘back to the cow,’ as they say.” We found it under-seasoned and flat, with curiously dense texture.

The burger came with turnip fries, a change-up from “gimmicky” sweet potato fries. The crispy coating was fine, but we reconfirmed what we’ve always known – the best part of that particular root is the greens.

We’ll be back for the sage flatbread smeared with asiago garlic spread and the seared polenta cakes with grilled portobello mushrooms. And maybe a Miss American Rye or a Sea of Tranquility cocktail. The names themselves are enough to make them delectable.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

The Independent

Where: 629 Main St., Placerville

Hours: Open daily. Lunch is 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m Mondays-Saturdays, from 10 a.m. Sundays. Dinner is 4:30-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, till 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Sunday brunch is 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Food:  1/2

Ambiance:

How much: $$

Information: 530-344-7645, independentplacerville.com

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