Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: In new hands, Amore Cafe happily stays course

It’s a familiar scenario: A favorite restaurant changes hands, changes menus, morphs into something unrecognizable and drops off your go-to list. Happily for its longtime clientele (including us), Amore Cafe & Bakery has remained constant, despite changing ownership.

Early last year, husband-wife Abhishek and Nina Paul bought it from Nader and Fariba Shirakh. The Pauls relocated from India to Canada, where they had a restaurant for eight years, and then moved to Sacramento. The Shirakhs once ran the fine-dining house Amadeus on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Sacramento. They opened Amore Cafe in 2005.

At the time of the Amore transition, this column was told the cuisine would remain primarily a fusion of from-scratch Mediterranean, Italian, French and Persian. To ensure that continuation, Fariba Shirakh schooled the Pauls on her cooking techniques and handed over the recipes.

“We will have exactly the same menu, but will add some Indian cuisine in a month or so,” Abhishek Paul said shortly after moving in. “Nina comes from a family of chefs and has many family recipes for Indian food.”

So what happened? “We did a trial launch of Indian-food specials and had a mixed response,” Abhishek Paul said Monday. “Some customers really loved it, but others just didn’t like the idea of putting Mediterranean and Indian together in the same place. Some people who don’t like Indian food were not happy with the smell of curry.”

So the post-purchase menu does remain the same, Paul said, but with the addition of 10 more entrees. “As before, almost everything is made by hand,” he pointed out.

Lunch pal-entrepreneur Neil Hagen and I scanned the pasta salads and desserts inside the cold case, then examined the whiteboard specials (Caesar salad with grilled chicken, tri-tip sandwich) and the daily menu. We were too late for breakfast (spinach-cheese omelet, quiche, blueberry-studded Belgian waffle; $7 to $12), but lunch looked fine – salads, soups, appetizers, kebabs, lasagna, gyro platter, hot and cold sandwiches and more ($4.50 to $12). An array of coffee and chai drinks includes Turkish coffee and green chai latte.

Neil has traveled the world many times and is a practicing gastronome, so it seemed fitting to ask him his favorite food nation. “Anywhere in Europe, especially Italy, but stay away from Russia,” he said.

We started this meal with a hot ramekin of sweet garlic baked in olive oil and topped with cheese. “I go everywhere and don’t see this,” said Neil, spreading the buttery, mild cloves over baguette slices. “(The owner) has a sleeper with this little baby. It would bring me back.”

Two soups arrived – clam chowder that really wasn’t, and vegetable in need of seasoning. The chowder did contain bits of clam, but really couldn’t qualify as clam chowder. Actually, it was much better than most versions we’ve had in California (with the exception of the masterpiece at Jamie’s Broadway Grill). The deeply flavored, cream-rich broth was specked with dill, parsley, celery, carrot, spinach and cayenne, and got better with each spoonful.

When the vegetable soup arrived, Neil reminisced, “There’s nothing like coming inside from a cold day and smelling the aroma of homemade vegetable soup cooking on the stove top. My mother cooked hers in a big pot, and we ate it for three days.” Unfortunately, this one wasn’t it.

We moved to cold spaghetti salad sharpened with sun-dried tomato, green olive, asparagus, cilantro and Parmesan. In case you don’t know, cold pasta can be better than hot pasta. Paired with it was a crunchy salad of crisp broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and red and green peppers scantily clad in champagne vinaigrette and accessorized with balsamic vinegar.

Frankly, we’ve had some lousy salmon burgers in our dining safaris, surprisingly in seaside towns including Sausalito and Half Moon Bay, so it was a delight to find the real thing.

Paul sources large fillets of wild Alaskan salmon (in limited quantity) and punches out rounds of fish with a burger-patty press (the excess ends up in salmon Benedicts). The rounds are sautéed, then go onto the grill. “There, we add butter, parsley flakes and (house-made) dill-weed sauce.” Lettuce and tomato joined the “burger” on a grilled bun smeared with a house-made dressing of mayo, Dijon mustard, lemon juice and cream.

Chicken salad can be tricky, in that a possible mélange of ingredients must harmoniously meld to produce a cohesive whole. This chicken-breast salad sandwich was appropriately chilled and firm, mixed with finely chopped pickle and the dressing described above. We thought more crunch from, say, celery or walnuts would have lit it up.

Amore Cafe continues to offer delectable pastries from veteran pastry chef Marcel Sierro, who stayed on after the transition. A luscious slice of Bavarian whipped cream-topped cappuccino cake arrived on a dish painted with thick chocolate-espresso sauce. “You’d expect to find this kind of presentation at Ella restaurant,” said Neil.

Slightly better was the Florentine “cookie,” a paste of almond, honey and orange marmalade formed into a round, dipped in Swiss dark chocolate and chilled.

Afterward, Neil mused, “We Americans operate at such a fast pace that we eat to live and not the other way around, and that’s a shame. We need to take a cue from other countries, such as France and Italy, where meals are events.”

Sounds good. When do we leave?