Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Oak Cafe goes to the head of the class

How’s this for dessert: sweet potato squash spice cake with glazed kumquats, quince and farmer’s cheese buttercream.
How’s this for dessert: sweet potato squash spice cake with glazed kumquats, quince and farmer’s cheese buttercream. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Give the Oak Cafe two “bests.” It’s one of our area’s best restaurants, and it’s one of the dining scene’s best-kept secrets, likely because of its location and irregular (but predictable) operating schedule. Oh, and give an “among the best” for its timely and professional service.

The cafe is the student-run 80-seat restaurant on the American River College campus, where a four-course lunch with dessert is a bargain $15. It’s the hands-on part of ARC’s two-year Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Program.

Now the news: The old cafe has been replaced with a splendid, just-opened, 16,000-square-foot facility. “It’s like moving from a shack into a mansion,” said one instructor offhandedly. The former cramped site, a 3,000-square-foot space used for both cooking and dining, is undergoing conversion into lecture classrooms.

The 400 or so students enrolled in the program work under the supervision of chef-teachers and are responsible for all aspects of the restaurant’s operation, from ordering inventory and prepping it, to cooking the food and serving it. Everything is made from scratch; the menu changes weekly and offers a wide range of cuisines and cooking methods.

The cafe operates in sync with school semesters, and serves lunch only on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays certain months of the year.

“We’re doing service through mid-December,” said department chairman Brian Knirk. “On Jan. 30 we’ll have a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony open to the public, with food samplings and a walk-thorough tour. Then we’ll reopen in early February.”

We showed up last Friday and got a walk-through of the labyrinthine space, courtesy of faculty instructors Roxanne O’Brien, Judy Parks and Teresa Urkofsky. We began in the retail bakery, full of breakfast and lunch items, cakes and pastries. It sells out every day, with a clientele of mostly school faculty and in-the-know public. Is it possible the students aren’t aware of what they have on their own campus?

Then we ventured into the belly of the beast, touring the behind-the-scenes Demonstration Kitchen (events such as cheese-tastings are in the planning stage), no-alcohol Beverage Lab (which looks like a coffee bar), temperature-controlled Candy Lab (chocolate and butter galore), two Kitchen Labs (one student was making a blue cheese-quince puff pastry appetizer), and the bustling Cafe Kitchen.

The operation was expertly organized and immaculate, the spacious rooms filled with state-of-the-art cooking equipment: grills, gas-fueled ranges and digital convection ovens; deep fryer, pizza oven, baking racks and a dual-purpose proofing oven; two refrigerated walk-ins and an ice machine so big it could supply the Arctic. Home cooks would envy the stainless-steel, wood and marble work stations.

“The students are working with the same equipment they will work with in the industry,” O’Brien pointed out.

“With the new facility, we’re hoping to add more classes soon,” Knirk added.

Which made us wonder: Who’s hiring these days? “Our graduates are definitely finding jobs,” Knirk said. “We’ve got quite a few at Waterboy, the pastry chef at Ella is one of our graduates and (the Paragary Restaurant Group) has hired some. Last year, three of them ended up in San Francisco at (Michelin star-holding restaurant) Gary Danko.”

To name-drop: Prominent chef Billy Zoellin is a graduate of the program. He segued from Mulvaney’s B&L to the Golden Bear and is now the chef-owner of the hip Bacon & Butter. Oh, and one more alumnus: celebrity chef and Food Network star Guy Fieri.

We joined a trio of chef-restaurateur types in the handsome main dining room (there’s a more intimate room for private parties), at a table underneath chandelier-type lighting. One of the tablemates was Randall Selland, who heads the family-owned Selland Group (which includes two of Sacramento’s premier restaurants, The Kitchen and Ella).

The conversation included the nature of the restaurant industry (“The business is all about consistent repetition,” someone said), fast-food chains (“We have a long way to go to educate people,” said another) and the hard reality of what cooking-school graduates will find in real-world restaurant kitchens (“If they can’t get up early and work late, they’re in the wrong business,” noted a third).

Hamburgers were also a topic of conversation. As a judge at the Sacramento Burger Battle, Selland said, “I had a hard time finding a burger that wasn’t over the top. The simpler the burger, usually the better it is.”

What sparked that remark was the burger entry on the Oak Cafe menu, one of three newly added a la carte items, there to complement the prix fixe luncheon. Though we four all ordered the prix fixe, Selland added two extras for the table: the burger (“Two all-beef patties and all that that implies, served with french fries,” $9) and a puffy-crust pizza topped with “chili-roasted chicken, autumn pesto, pancetta, ricotta and provolone ($8).

Selland cut the burger into quarters and passed them around. Bite, chew, swallow. “I would eat this burger again,” he said. We three nodded in agreement. Same goes for the pizza. Bonus: The crispy-creamy, perfectly seasoned fries were the best we’ve tasted in a long while.

As for the prix fixe lunch: “Trudy’s bread and chicken drippings,” battered and fried “cardoon (a cousin of the artichoke) with green salsa,” a ramekin of mac and “Redwood Hill Farm smoked goat cheddar cheese” topped with a lattice of crisped cheese, pink and tender slices of roasted lamb leg with “braised Del Rio Greens” (surprisingly tough), al dente “Early Lady beans,” and black and green olives, all in a light, flavorful jus.

Dessert was a 3-D work of art: “Kentucky sweet potato squash spice cake, glazed kumquats, quince and farmer’s cheese buttercream.”

If no one minds, we’d like to audit the classes.

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

Oak Cafe

Where: American River College campus, 4700 College Oak Drive, Sacramento

Hours: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from now till mid-December, then resuming in early February; staggered seatings from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Reservations “highly recommended.”

Food:

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 484-8526, www.arc.losrios.edu/chef

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