It seems like anyone who's been kicking around Sacramento for more than a decade used to go to Celestin's.
One friend I had lunch with at the Creole restaurant's dollhouse-sized new iteration drank Singapore slings at the old K Street location, closed in 2011, on her wedding night.
The old location was my mom's favorite, and I have many memories of meals there with her. And I know plenty of other people who missed their gumbo and grio (fried pork).
The original restaurant from namesake owners Patrick and Phoebe Celestin opened on J Street in 1983 and later moved to a larger K Street location (now occupied by The Porch). After a seven-year hiatus, the Celestins have reopened, with a short and sweet menu that draws on Patrick's Haitian roots but also leans toward New Orleans, in a tiny East Sacramento venue that was once the short-lived Devine Gelateria.
The reborn Celestin's comes minus the Singapore slings (it offers wine and beer, rather than a full bar) but with tangy sangria, a cozy vibe and plenty of gumbo to satisfy the nostalgic and newcomers alike. The casual cafe, open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, has grab-and-go lunches and Temple coffee, as well as sit-down service.
The menu – recently changed – is short but with plenty of options, including vegan and vegetarian picks, gumbos, sandwiches, and excellent salads. Speaking of the menu, during my meals there was only a printed leaflet, the takeout menu, available; the heftier, formal menu encased in the typical restaurant sleeves was still distributed to diners, but recently had been changed to remove several dishes.
The odd practice of giving out an obsolete menu from which diners couldn't order left the servers to offer a slightly awkward explanation, which pointed up some other bumpy elements of the service.
Dishes came out of the easily overwhelmed kitchen slowly and unevenly; in one case, a salad (which would seem to be the easiest thing to produce) lagged so far behind the other dishes we ordered that we finally canceled it. I observed a couple of other tables experiencing similar problems at one dinner, even though the small dining room wasn't full. The servers were, however, both apologetic about the hitches and knowledgeable about the dishes.
Although the term Creole makes most Americans think of New Orleans, it can also refer to the mix of cultures in the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. The decor at Celestin's reflects that, with rose-pink walls hung with framed, sparkling beaded art flags that are traditional to Haiti. Bright red chairs and antique-gold-tone light fixtures also help give the space a roseate glow.
The menu, however, is where the Haitian connection shines. Ti-malice sauce, for instance (the name means "naughty" and also applies to a trickster character in Haitian folklore) had bright, fruity zip and bite from habaneros, lime juice, shallots and thyme. I would happily drizzle it on almost anything; here it comes with a number of dishes, including crisp-chewy (and vegan) fried plantains and the grio, an entrée of chunks of fried pork.
Although the pork on its own was a bit dry (fattier pieces were more successful), together with the zippy ti-malice sauce the grio was a tasty reminder of the links among cuisines around the Caribbean region, with flavors not unlike Yucatecan cochinita pibil.
Corn cakes and black beans were similarly reminiscent of Latin American fare. Although the menu promised crispness, the corn cakes were soft (and still perfectly pleasant) under spiced black beans and a showering of melted, zingy habanero jack cheese. They're a hearty appetizer, but they'd work fine as a vegetarian entrée.
The chiquetaille (a handy pronunciation guide on the menu advises it's spoken "chic-tie") was another enjoyable appetizer, or "petit plat," combining bacalau (salt cod) with spicy vinaigrette and chopped vegetables – like a cross between ceviche and brandade.
The full ramekin came with just four mini toasts and needed about 12, but the servers did bring extra regular bread for sopping up the tangy juices. An aside: I know it looks stylish to arrange just a few toasts on an appetizer plate, but come on, restaurants, stop being so stingy. Diners love toast!
Gumbo is one of the stars of the show here. The signature Celestin's gumbo comes in a deep bowl full of mahogany broth, perfectly cooked seafood (including tender shrimp, rock cod, and just-right scallops, quite a feat), sausage and chicken. There are also seafood-only, chicken-only, and vegetarian versions, plus build-your-own. The hot bowl of broth might be a little bit warming for Sacramento's dog days of summer, but I'll return for it on a cold rainy day next winter for sure.
For a more refreshing, summery lunch, veer toward the shrimp and avocado salad, which came with sweet chunks of perfect yellow tomatoes, pickled red onions, lots of fresh greens and tender, sweet shrimp, plus a tart lime and paprika dressing.
From the entrees, a sleeper hit was poulet blanchi, chicken cooked in a cream sauce with sweet peas and onions. It tasted like the best possible filling of a chicken pot pie. Other options include shrimp and chicken creoles and a scallop dish in coconut-lime sauce.
A solid lineup of sandwiches makes Celestin's an appealing lunch destination. Grio sliders mitigated the dryness of the pork as an entrée, and a chicken creole sandwich offered avocado, cheese, and a heaping mound of the gently spiced chicken stew. Crisp golden fries were excellent and salty. The fried chicken sandwich, on a pretzel bun, had an unusual breading of super-coarse and somewhat gritty cornmeal, but the juicy chicken thigh within was a winner.
For dessert, there are cookies and some baked goods from Freeport Bakery, but I preferred the housemade coconut tart, thick and sweet with shreds of refreshing lime zest, and above all the satiny key lime pie, whose thick custard with a mound of whipped cream on top was flawless. The graham cracker crust hadn't quite kept its crunch, but I forgave it thanks to the tang of that lovely filling.
Smaller and more tightly edited than its forebears, the new Celestin's may not please every single nostalgia-lured diner. But on one of my visits, I observed some delighted regulars of yore who had day-tripped from afar to eat poulet blanchi and get a hug from chef-owner Patrick Celestin. I can't claim that I was a regular back in the day, but I'm glad Celestin's has revived its particular brand of gumbo and grace. From the first bite of ti-malice to the smooth final note of key lime pie, it's nice to be back.
3610 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento. 916-258-4060
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Beverage options: Wine and beer, plus house sangria; fresh limeade, tea, and Temple coffee are among the nonalcoholic options.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes. The short menu offers several vegan and vegetarian options, including fried plantains, vegetarian gumbo, and a veggie sandwich.
Gluten-free options: Yes, though the code noted on the menu isn't actually attached to dishes; diners should ask.
Noise levels: Conversation is comfortable, though it can get a little loud when the small space fills up.
Ambiance: Casual but stylish and colorful, the slightly cramped space gets warmth and a refined Caribbean look from soft pink walls, gold light fixtures, and gorgeous framed, glittery Haitian beaded art flags. N.B.: Squeezing in between tables can be a challenge for both servers and diners.
☆☆☆ (Three stars)
Creole and Caribbean flavors aren't generally a strength of Sacramento's food scene, and the return of Célestin's fills a void, offering savory gumbo and more in its minuscule but charming new East Sacramento location.
☆☆☆ (Three stars)
Fresh and bounteous salads, richly flavored gumbo with perfectly cooked seafood, fried plantains with zesty, sour ti-malice sauce, and hefty sandwiches are strengths of the tightly edited menu. Though the kitchen could work out a few small wobbles (dry pork in the grio, bland red beans and rice), the dishes generally please.
☆☆ (Two stars)
The kitchen often seems overwhelmed, such that food comes out late or out of order, leaving the servers to apologize. Their sincere goodwill, however, helps make up for bumps in the operation of the dining room.
☆☆☆ (Three stars)
Filling portions are reasonably priced, especially considering the quantity of high-quality seafood in dishes like gumbo ($20). Most entrees are under $20, and sandwiches, in the $10-12 range (with an $11 grab-and-go option), make for an affordable lunch.