Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Ambitious menu at Rancho Cordova’s Fire Rock Grill

French dip au jus on Dutch crunch bread is teamed with a swordfish sandwich at Fire Rock Grill in Rancho Cordova.
French dip au jus on Dutch crunch bread is teamed with a swordfish sandwich at Fire Rock Grill in Rancho Cordova. apierleoni@sacbee.com

A high wind swept a swarm of brown leaves across the parking lot and deck of the sprawling Fire Rock Grill, heralding another storm and adding a certain intangible to the mood created by the stately presence of the century-old building.

Among its past incarnations, the handsome structure was the Sheepherder’s Inn, serving a Basque menu, and later the Sheepherder Bar & Grill. After a “refresh” and expansion, the space reopened in February as the Fire Rock, with a menu described as “New American (including) tastes from Latin America, the Mediterranean and Italy.”

The building demands a second and then a third look, as it’s an anomaly along a tired, traffic-jammed stretch of Folsom Boulevard in Rancho Cordova. It’s a statement from the past, with its antique-looking street lamps and series of river rock-and-mortar pillars supporting a second level, and a front porch that speaks to a long-lost, less-hectic lifestyle. Who moved the Adirondack chairs?

Inside, the dining rooms and bar area go on and on, punctuated by three massive river rock-fronted fireplaces, dark wood and original exposed wood beams and rafters. Over here is a festive wreath, over there two Christmas trees, and throughout are more holiday decorations and framed art on the walls, all underneath twinkling chandeliers. Appropriately, the napkins are cloth, not paper. This could be a private club on a quiet side street.

Lunch pal Jack Mootz and I found a booth and settled in. He’s the CEO of Sacramento Jazz Connection, leader of the jazz group Impromptu and founder of Hands Across the Table, which advocates for special-education issues. The menu looked ambitious, with nine starters, 10 salads, eight sandwiches, six entrees and three pizzas ($4-$20). A weekday lunch special of a “half-sandwich of the day” and soup is $10. As for table service, give it high marks for professionalism.

“With all the places to eat downtown, it’s nice to see a classy restaurant on the outskirts of Sacramento,” said Jack.

Agreed, but who’s showing up? “Our client base during lunch and happy hour comes from (area) corporate businesses, (which employ) close to 45,000 people within a 4-square-mile radius,” said general manager Randall Christian on the phone later. To increase the dinner crowd, “we’re turning into a supper club and music venue at night,” he said. “To create a lounge-y feel, we have a lot of jazz, vocalists and special musical events, and (will feature) wine-pairing dinners.”

Back in our booth, Jack and I started with a cup of spicy shredded-turkey chili (a winner) and clam chowder that was potato-heavy and oversalted. The question arose: Croutons on top of chowder? How about oyster crackers on the side instead?

Next, a trio of pork-beef-ricotta meatballs (“polpetine” on the menu) were luscious and well-seasoned, nestled in a ramekin of polenta that was more rubbery and lukewarm than creamy and steaming hot, but still tasty. Bringing the dish together was well-spiced San Marzano tomato sauce ladled on top.

We jump on French dip every time we see it on a menu, with mixed results. The Fire Rock’s take on it involves thinly sliced prime rib on a not-so-crunchy Dutch crunch roll, served au jus. The concept sounded great, but we agreed the beef needed a dash of seasoning. “Even some salt and pepper would do it,” Jack said.

Beyond that, the kitchen had failed to separate the beef fat in the cooking juices from the finished jus, resulting in a greasy layer floating on top. Yuck.

We wanted to sub fresh fruit for the french fries, but were told there was none, so we went for a Caesar salad instead, which was in need of more dressing.

Swordfish can overcook in a heartbeat, but the kitchen grilled a slab of it to moist perfection. The only problem was finding it in the thick sandwich of arugula, tomato and very tasty herb aioli, again on Dutch crunch. It’s a lunchtime hit, Christian said later, but we thought less bread and produce would have helped spotlight the fresh-tasting fish.

Frankly, from what we tasted, the kitchen isn’t quite fulfilling the promise of the menu, which includes such intriguing dishes such as linguine with sausage Bolognese, roasted turkey Reuben and chilled “beet stack” salad. The Fire Rock is certainly a ladder of steps up from the Sheepherder and is positioned for the next level. We hope it keeps climbing.

Evan’s excels with chicken

“People talk salad but eat steak,” an insightful restaurateur acquaintance once said of his customers’ dining habits. The same can be said of fried chicken, a guilty pleasure for many.

Top takes on the American classic are at Chef’s Table, Tori’s Place, the new Sticky Gator and Hawks, to name a few. We’re looking forward to tasting it at the newly opened South restaurant.

Meanwhile, add Evan’s Kitchen to the list. We grabbed lunch there last Friday and crunched our way through a juicy leg-thigh covered in thick, flavorful coating. On the plate, too, were chunky mashed potatoes from unpeeled Yukon gold spuds (with sour cream instead of milk) and sautéed corn with green bell pepper, both excellent.

Later, Evan explained the process: “The chicken itself is seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, sage and honey. For the flour, we add ranch dressing mix and barbecue-spice mix. Then we dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, then dip it in buttermilk, then back into the flour and then fry it.”

We also split a plate of meatloaf with mushroom gravy. The base is two parts ground sirloin to one part bulk Italian sausage, cooked with a mirepoix (the classic French dice of celery, onions and carrots) “and a lot of stuff I can’t tell you about,” said Evan.

Uh, the meatloaf was way salty, Evan. “That’s good to know,” he said. “I didn’t make it that day, I was too busy. I’ll fix it.”

Evan’s Kitchen is at 855 57th St., Sacramento; (916) 452-3896. The revamped website is a work in progress.

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

Fire Rock Grill

11275 Folsom Blvd, Rancho Cordova

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-9 p.m. Saturdays. Happy hour is 3-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Live jazz and other music genres are played on weekends; see the schedule on the website.

Food: 1/2

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 638-4584; www.firerockgrill.com

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