Opened recently at downtown’s Sawyer Hotel, the second outpost of restaurateur-chef Sam Marvin’s modern Las Vegas steakhouse Echo & Rig has been drawing crowds. The kitchen stays open late, the sleek room hums with energy and the bar is often packed. It all looks like a convincing advertorial for Sacramento’s vibrant new downtown.
But how’s the actual experience of eating there? In a word, uneven.
You can absolutely get a good chunk of beef here – as it should be at any place that calls itself a steakhouse. (To my mild sorrow, the local branch lacks the attached butcher shop of the Las Vegas original – though, to be fair, few hotel guests probably need to pick up a hand-cut steak on a whim.) More elaborate dishes often falter, however, and, true to the restaurant’s origin, ordering a selection from the lengthy small-plates menu felt like an expensive gamble.
The house may always win in Vegas, but that’s not always the case here. Steaks generally pay off, with caveats. There’s a range of cuts on the menu, all butchered in house by a butcher who comes in daily at 5 a.m., plus an off-menu board of atavistic, enormous steaks for sharing. The latter, which they call “big boy” steaks, include a porterhouse, a T-bone and the bone-in “tomahawk” steak, all priced at $2.59 per ounce and ranging from 20-45 ounces. They’re proudly paraded through the dining room for big parties.
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All steaks come with good crunchy garlic potato chips, a lukewarm stuffed mushroom with mushy breadcrumbs inside, and a choice of sauces both classic and more adventurous: béarnaise, horseradish, lemon chimichurri, a savory but sadly broken brandied mushroom.
Beef types – including Akaushi, American Kobe, Creekstone Natural and prime – are listed on the menu with great precision, but the menu also spells filet mignon as minion. Of course, menu typos happen at all restaurants, but it unsettled me that a fancy steakhouse would get the name of the archetypal premium cut wrong. The presence of less often seen cuts like bavette and the once-popular, now little-seen Spencer, on the other hand, attest to the kitchen’s seriousness about beef.
Sticking to the classics here pays off. A prime New York strip had a great chew and savory flavor. It was cool inside despite being ordered medium-rare, but it tasted great and the accompanying béarnaise was just right.
All the steaks are cooked over red oak, and sometimes the sear gets a little intense. The skirt steak with paniolo marinade (a paniolo is a Hawaiian cowboy, and the marinade was describe to me as teriyaki-style) was nice and rare, as I ordered it, and the meat inside had great flavor, but the char on the outside was so strong as to be gritty and bitter, with no trace of the marinade’s promised flavor. The accompanying “charred onion” sauce tasted strongly of Worcestershire.
On one visit, I was dining with someone who, for medical reasons, must have meat fully cooked. His well-done steak was burnt to twisted, unrecognizable oblivion, reminding me keenly of the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s description of how professional kitchens treat “save for well done” cuts. Of course, aficionados wouldn’t order a well-done steak, and to be perfectly honest it pained me to hear that request for good beef, but the kitchen should deliver a well-done cut that’s at least edible to those who do prefer it.
As at traditional steakhouses, steaks don’t come with a full plate of sides; to get veggies, you order a la carte plates. The options here are many and varied. Winners included Brussels sprouts with lemon and pistachios, a fresh and snappy tomato-cucumber-watermelon salad and cauliflower with chile de árbol and surprising (but not bad) candied shallots.
In the realm of things that won’t supply any vitamin C, mac and cheese was rich and creamy, and toasted potato gnocchi came with bright snow peas and strangely dense pesto. Grilled octopus with gigante beans and green olives was balanced and well conceived.
Our server strongly recommended bone marrow carne asada – one of several meat-rich side dishes, including steak tartare and thick bacon with BBQ sauce – but I found it conceptually confusing. The citrusy, tart carne asada was excellent with a spritz of the accompanying blood orange, but the unctuous bone marrow added drama but not much flavor to the dish, and I was baffled by four limp toasts. Why not spice up the bone marrow and serve it with tortillas to make mini tacos?
The menu also offers sandwiches, salads (kale with a couple of small golden beets was dull but passable) and some non-steak entrees. Sea bass a la plancha was simple and excellent, unadorned but for a fluff of mache leaves and dipping oil. I wish that they’d similarly left the lamb porterhouse chops alone; they were overwhelmed by pointless chunks of dried apricot, fennel, a thick and peculiar violet mustard, and tiny potatoes.
Breakfast is available every day, with a fancy weekend brunch that’s not really worth the price. My smoked salmon benedict on potato pancakes was a good idea, but the pancakes themselves were undercooked inside and badly reheated, the edges gray and cardboard-like instead of crisp and golden. I don’t leave potatoes on the plate very often, but I left these.
A brunch bloody Mary was completely basic, not even a veggie garnish. (Hey, I count on those for a side salad.) Other cocktails on the house list, by contrast, had lots of razzle-dazzle craft ingredients but tasted relatively straightforward – not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. My smoked sage daisy, for instance, lacked much aroma of smoke or sage but bore a pleasant resemblance to a margarita.
The house old fashioned, which is smoked in an elaborate glass box if you order it at the bar and boasts a “bacon wash,” was appealingly redolent of brown sugar and bourbon.
Simplicity wasn’t always a good thing. Echo & Rig tried its hand at the trendiest and simplest of breakfast dishes, and the result was disappointing. Their avocado toast was served on a sweetish, throwback-style brown bread. (This bread also came with dinner on one of my visits; on another, we got a much better loaf of warm San Francisco-style sourdough.) The limp bread was topped with inedible unripe avocados and a drizzle of olive oil. I’ve never had avocado toast where the bread was softer than the avocados before, and I hope I never do again.
Steak and egg frites were a mixed bag. The fries were golden and just fine. The steak – that old-fashioned beefy, chewy square cut called the Spencer – was a little charred, but still delicious, was full of flavor and cooked right to the medium-rare specification. However, poached eggs in a little bowl alongside were served in a pool of their poaching water, diluting the yolk into unappetizing pale eggy soup. A grilled tomato was hard and pallid.
Lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes were fine and fluffy, though the actual blueberries were sparse and their flavor undetectable in house-infused blueberry syrup.
The winner at brunch was a brisket grilled cheese, also available on the lunch and dinner menu. It had crispy griddled Monterey Jack cheese on top of the fluffy white bread and tender, rich brisket with oozy white cheddar in the middle. It came with the same pleasantly crunchy house-fried garlic chips that come with all the steaks.
Service is an ostentatious focus here, part of the luxe aura created by the subtle wood-and-leather decor, gold bands on the columns and clubby low chairs in the bar. The host passes slips of paper to servers so they greet you by name and ask carefully about special events. This had the strange effect of making it seem like we needed to justify our presence when we didn’t have one and I found myself saying things like “Um … we have a babysitter?” A manager visits every table. A lot of training and drilling has clearly gone into giving an over-the-top service experience.
Unfortunately, it all feels a little hollow when the servers, rather hampered by the setting, commit basic blunders. The design of ultra-deep tables in booths means servers can’t reach across comfortably to fill water glasses, leading to an awkward shuffle. The busy, big dining room without clear sight lines makes it hard to get servers’ attention as they rush by, extra frustrating because service tends to lag.
We experienced a couple of big lapses. One unfortunate food runner with an overbalanced tray spilled most of my daughter’s fries, accompanying a brunch dish, onto the tray. I felt for the poor guy, who froze and plainly didn’t know what to do. His first impulse was to take the whole dish back to the kitchen for replacement, but most of the food was fine. My daughter was hungry and we’d already waited a long time, so I said to just leave the main dish. We thought perhaps they’d send out a few more fries to replace the spilled ones, but heard nothing further of the affair, making the whole incident awkward.
More seriously, on my last meal at Echo & Rig – a late dinner that stretched far later than I’d have liked, thanks to long waits between courses – our server ran our credit card wrong. The slip came back with a charge of more than $100 above the original bill. The problem got corrected, but with little apology, no explanation and a longish wait – probably not the final impression the restaurant wants to leave.
Alas, like so many hotel restaurants, Echo & Rig probably doesn’t need to lure too many customers back on its own merits. The fact that it doesn’t expect a loyal crowd of regulars shows in the fact that each time I dined I was chirpily asked if it was my first time there. When it was, we got an explanation of how to order – a now-commonplace convention that I wish restaurants would dispense with. You order food, the servers bring it – we get it, that’s how restaurants work.
Echo & Rig will succeed not because throngs of locals adore it, but based on one-off diners staying in the hotel and its prime downtown location, within easy reach of many an expense account. It’s about as good as it has to be – which is to say, uneven but with enough flash and high-quality steaks to get by.
Echo and Rig
500 J Street, 916-619-8939
Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar with specialty cocktails, beer and a solid wine list with many selections by the glass.
Vegetarian friendly: It’s emphatically a steakhouse, so no, but vegetarians along for the ride will find some small plates and salads they can eat.
Gluten-free options: Yes, many.
Noise levels: Extremely loud.
Ambiance: Buzzy and upscale, with touches like brushed-gold bands on sleek columns and chestnut leather banquettes that subtly reference classic steakhouses. The crowd is mostly dressy (summer’s date-night dress code seems to be formal rompers and very high heels) and exuberant, with a sprinkling of discomfited, T-shirted hotel guests who appear to have sticker shock.
☆☆ (Two stars)
Echo & Rig attempts to reinvent the steakhouse as a modern destination with high style, but it often wobbles when it comes to substance and makes some serious missteps in food and service. The establishment feels like an uncomfortable compromise between the vexed category of hotel restaurant and high-end steakhouse.
☆☆½ (Two and a half stars)
The simpler the steak and the fare, the better the choice here. Marinated steaks are hit and miss, but such basics as a toothsome New York strip are cooked perfectly. Stripped-down smaller plates (creamy mac and cheese, vibrantly summery tomato-watermelon-cucumber salad) are best; elaborate items can get muddled. Skip brunch.
☆☆ (Two stars)
Over-the-top service flourishes betray the restaurant’s glitzy Vegas origins, but some basic errors and long waits for food undermine the ostensible focus on hospitality.
☆☆½ (Two and a half stars)
First, the good: individual steaks are not as pricey expensive as what you might see at other high-end steakhouses, ranging from $29-$39 for high-quality cuts. The bad news: To get a full meal, everything else adds up fast, with modestly sized veggie and meat small plates priced $9-$11. Expect a hefty bill. Is it worth it? Depends on how much you like steak.