Allen Pierleoni

First Impressions: Fish Face and Metro Kitchen on the R Street Corridor

Fish Face Poke Bar in the Warehouse Artist Lofts Public Market.
Fish Face Poke Bar in the Warehouse Artist Lofts Public Market. cmeyer@sacbee.com

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

Things keep cookin’ along the R Street Corridor, the former warehouse district undergoing a renaissance into a restaurant, entertainment and arts destination.

Fox & Goose, Shady Lady, Shoki Ramen and Cafe Bernardo are among the veterans, recently joined by Iron Horse Tavern, Roxie Deli & Barbecue, Fish Face and Metro Kitchen + Drinkery and Bottle & Barlow. Magpie Cafe moved to a larger space; the original R Street cafe is now Nido, a casual cafe and bakery.

We dropped by Fish Face and Metro, both inside the Warehouse Artist Lofts Public Market. The market feels airy, open and slightly unfinished, with scarred walls and concrete floors, and other reminders of the historic Lawrence Warehouse building housing it. More striking than the decor is the vibe, which is relaxed but also seems filled with promise. The public-market space evokes places we have visited in the Bay Area and Portland more than anything we’ve seen locally.

When we visited on a weekday at lunch, the stretch of R that runs from Fox & Goose at 10th Street to R15 at 15th Street felt more alive than it has in recent memory, with plenty of people inside and outside the restaurants. We finally got a strong, concentrated sense of that “changing Sacramento” we keep hearing about.

If it seems as if we just joined the city’s marketing team, that could be due to the Chocolate Fish “Nitro” draft coffee we drank at Fish Face. The poke bar serves it on tap, alongside Kirin Ichiban and Track 7 Panic IPA. With its beer taste and caffeine kick, Nitro encourages midday optimism.

FISH FACE POKE BAR

Chef Billy Ngo, known for creating innovative, imaginative raw-fish dishes at Kru, goes simpler with his new venture, Fish Face Poke Bar.

Fish Face, a WAL Public Market stall offering counter service, uses the Chipotle model of letting diners choose proteins and accoutrements. This time, it’s for poke, the spicy Hawaiian raw-fish dish. The poke spot already is a hot concept in Southern California.

At Fish Face, one receives a scrap of paper to fill out, designating size ($8 for small, $12 medium, $16 large), protein (options include ahi tuna – poke’s traditional main ingredient – octopus, and tofu-and-cucumber) and sauce (choices include sesame-soy and spicy kimchi).

All poke orders come with green and white onions, seaweed and sauce. You also can order extras, including cilantro (50 cents), daikon sprouts ($1) and avocado ($2).

We added cilantro and jalapeño to our cups of ahi and octopus poke, but the additions felt unnecessary. The poke’s zingy flavor came from the seafood, onion and sauce (sesame-soy for the ahi, wasabi for the octopus) included in the base price.

The fresh-tasting ahi and smoky-flavored (and cooked) octopus arrived in generous portions in plastic cups. From the point where one first digs in, to about midway into the cup, there’s just enough sauce on the fish to enhance its flavors. But at cup’s bottom, where the fish had been sitting in sauce, things grew overly salty. (Since we visited a few weeks ago, Fish Face has switched to metal bowls for eat-in orders.)

Prices can creep up on you at Fish Face, where a side of rice goes for $3. But it’s possible to fill up on a $12 medium order of poke, sans extras. Ordering a less-complicated poke also suits the unadorned aesthetic of the WAL Public Market.

METRO KITCHEN + DRINKERY

Metro Kitchen & Drinkery is a few steps across a hallway from Fish Face, is less self-contained and, at the time of our visit, less assembly-line efficient.

“We’re creating and providing food and beverages that are designed to support vibrant lifestyle choices,” said co-owner Lisa Musilli Johnson (with husband Keith). “We work directly with and source from (small farms) and farmers markets, and are responding to what our customers are looking for.”

Which, judging by the work-in-progress menu, are cold-pressed juices by the glass ($6 and $8) and bottle ($5, $7.50 and $18 for a quart) and an assortment of intriguing “bites and small plates” ($4.50 to $12.25).

Don’t overlook the “cocktails” based on Han-brand Korean “soju” spirits made from rice and barley; and wine, beer, hard cider and non-alcoholic kombucha. Note that four to six juices are available daily “as determined by what is fresh, seasonal and available now,” Johnson said.

We began with glasses of excellent carrot-orange juice (with touches of grapefruit, lime and beet juices) that, as a lunch pal put it, “tastes really good for you.” Next was luscious peach-mint juice, slightly viscous and delicious.

Accompanying them was a trio of roasted mixed nuts – crisp and fresh-tasting Spanish peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts and pecans. We thought the Himalayan Salt lacked ... well, salt. Spicy Herb was in need of ... well, more herbs and spices. Maple Chipotle was the best of the bunch, with subtle maple flavor and a hint of smoky chipotle.

A beautifully plated tartine of prosciutto contained some of the most flavorful avocado, lettuce and tomato we’ve had (yes, lettuce can have taste), finished with light herb-shallot aioli. The side of pickled veggies looked good, but the taste was bitter.

We wanted to sample flatbread with the Mideastern herb za’atar, figs, ricotta cheese and honey, but the menu announced the dish is “coming soon.” Also expected are deviled eggs, “summer lunch salads” and a “summer vegetable-quinoa frittata.” In the meantime, eight other salads will suffice.

We concluded that Metro is about as close to eating at a farmers market as you can get, without walking from stall to stall with your cloth stash bag.

Fish Face and Metro are in the Warehouse Artist Lofts, 1104 R St., Sacramento. Fish Face: 916-706-0605, www.fishfacepokebar.com; open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. every day. Metro Kitchen + Drinkery: 916-346-8319, www.metrokitchendrinkery.com; open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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