It seemed fitting to invite a chef as a lunch pal for an outing to the Chef’s Table in Rocklin, but on the way there Paulette Bruce quickly pointed out, “I’m not a chef – I’m a cook.”
If she insists, even though the longtime public-relations maven has taught home-cooking classes at various venues for 18 years (“I’ve been kind of a cooking-school vagabond.”). Her most recent is the Good Eats series at East Bay Restaurant Supply in Sacramento ( www.goodeatscookingclasses.com), a gig she’s had for five years. “Bringing people together over food is the best job in the world,” she said. “The table is probably the most important part of my life.”
Paulette and I pulled up at Chef’s Table, semi-hidden in the sprawling Blue Oaks Marketplace, and found a surprisingly cozy, under-lit room with an energetic vibe and background music at just the right volume. Every seat in the house would fill with animated diners in the next half-hour, a sure sign the lunchtime locals from Rocklin, Roseville and Lincoln have made it their own.
The most interesting view was at the bar looking into the open kitchen, but we sat at a banquette table and glanced at a wall-mounted TV set showing sports. More captivating was a wall display of striking art for sale by Simon B. Dunn. One of them, a pineapple, had a price tag of $1,750.
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We liked the to-the-point, ever-changing 10-item menu ($7 to $15), but wondered who’s still eating tuna melts these days. We also liked the casualness of the place, partly personified by our server, Toby Kinney, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with an appropriate message: “Beer is Here.” So is wine, with some intriguing choices. A few days later, my colleague Chris Macias, who writes about wine and food for The Bee, looked at the list and remarked, “There’s a nice diversity to it, some thought has gone into it.”
We chose fresh-brewed tropical-flavored iced tea, and the professionally efficient Kinney kept the glasses full. He also paced the incoming dishes perfectly, starting with an imposing mound of hot and crispy beer-battered fries, rich with basil pesto and shredded Swiss cheese.
“These fries are deadly,” Paulette said, and we would have killed them all but were distracted by the arrival of two carnitas tacos, among the best we’ve tasted. The juicy-crispy pork chunks were covered in crunchy lime-tasting coleslaw and chipotle sour cream, with a side of excellent house-made salsa.
The half-pound ground-beef patty on the Theta Burger was a lesson in flavor and texture. No surprise, given that it’s from grass-fed cattle raised by the estimable Sun Fed Ranch. Though our burger was cut in half and served on two plates, the whole Theta Burger ordinarily arrives at the table with a cool presentation: On top of the bun was a half-pickle, speared to the burger with a wood-handled knife.
“The (type of burger) changes weekly, and we run the Theta Burger twice a year or so,” said co-owner (with Jon Irwin) and general manager Erick Johnson. “We have an Underground Burger that took third place in the Sacramento Burger Battle, that people can get any time if they know about it. Basically, an applewood-smoked bacon-cheeseburger meets a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with Sriracha sauce).”
Though the ground beef part of the burger was delicious, we agreed the bun was way too thick (but how else to support a pickle and a knife?) and the cheddar cheese was background noise. The applewood-smoked bacon was crisp and thick, but something was making the burger “package” surprisingly bitter. Was it the combination of mustard aioli and barbecue sauce?
For the record, food lore has it that the Theta Burger originated at the Town Tavern in Norman, Okla., likely in the 1940s. It came with a pickle, cheese and a topping of liquid-hickory-smoke-spiked tomato sauce and olive oil.
We applauded the Chef’s Table’s kitchen for innovation when the vegetarian risotto showed up, a mélange of white corn, peaches, blistered shishitso peppers, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and micro-basil, mixed with rice from Italy. We thought the ingredients were incompatible, though, the rice clunky rather than creamy, leaving the dish with little flavor and no identity. “The heat-and-sweet theme isn’t working,” Paulette said.
One of the items on the rotating menu is fried chicken. It wasn’t there the day we visited, but we hear it rivals the version that Hawks in Granite Bay serves on its rotating Sunday menu. How about a taste-off when the weather cools?
A lot of restaurants become destinations partly because they have certain dishes their patrons can depend on to be the same, time after time. An example is the ravioli in lemon sauce at Piatti at the Pavilions shopping center.
Another draw is the “heavyweight” hand-carved corned beef and pastrami sandwiches at Sam’s Hof Brau, with a bowl of semi-salty jus for dipping.
Standing in line recently at the retro restaurant, and watching carvers in tall white toques show off their knife skills, we thought it would be a good idea to have heaps of both types of brisket on rye bread. So we ordered a half ’n’ half and grabbed a booth. There, we found horseradish and hot mustard. We didn’t speak for a while, then we left. Now we’re planning our next assault.
Get it for $9.39 at Sam’s, 2500 El Camino Ave., Sacramento; (916) 482-2175, www.thehofbrau.com.
6843 Lonetree Blvd., Rocklin
Hours: Lunch is 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner is 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Food:* * *
Ambiance:* * 1/2
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 916-771-5656, www.thechefstablerocklin.com