Opened this spring in the former digs of Chops, in the shadow of the Capitol, The Diplomat Steakhouse is clearly aiming for the expense-account crowd, with sky-high prices and a pleasant setting featuring soft gray paneling and one of the best patios in town. It’s a shame you have to eat there to enjoy it.
Over three visits, the best dishes I ate barely reached the low threshold of being passable. Service was well-intentioned, but clumsy and amateurish. Indeed, the entire restaurant — dated fare, painful menu puns and website copy, inconsistent pricing, out-of-service stalls in the women’s restroom — seems like an amateur production.
My meals at The Diplomat evinced no care or consideration for underlying quality, little attention to detail, and a complete lack of vision or understanding of what a high-end restaurant should be offering its guests.
The Diplomat presents itself as a fine-dining restaurant and mimics some of the flourishes of the grand restaurant tradition. It has some of the highest prices in town to match. But it all feels like a grift. Underscoring that sense, there are no prices on the website. And if you visit the website, you should also be aware that the food I was served on three occasions bore scant resemblance to the photos online.
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The restaurant makes bold claims of updating the steakhouse tradition. The steaks, however, seem like an afterthought. There are few on the menu: three sizes of filet mignon (the 6-ounce portion is $48), a 16-ounce ribeye is $54, prime New York for $63 and a couple of huge porterhouses. (Bigger steaks to share, and the lobster, are simply marked “MP” for market price — which usually means expensive.) There are more choices for showy adornments — foie gras, lobster, charred truffle butter— than there are for steaks.
Meat is designated “prime” with no explanation about the beef’s origin or the restaurant’s choice of meat vendor. It was hard to discern any particular interest in meat quality or the art of choosing a good steak at this steakhouse. I’m not much of a fan of extensive explanations of provenance on menus, but some explanation about what makes the meat special might help to justify the prices.
In accordance with steakhouse tradition, these are served completely unadorned. The ribeye I got, medium rare, was fine, with good marbling and a rim of fat. However, it lacked the distinctive, flavorful hard sear steakhouses are known for; any reasonably competent home griller could do as well or better.
Sides cost a cool $15 for basic vegetables. We ordered a side of broccolini au gratin and I honestly couldn’t figure out how they got a cheese sauce to be as thin as milk yet grainy with the flour that was supposed to thicken it. The broccolini swimming in the drippy mess was undercooked.
Getting sauce on top of that steak will set you back $5-$8. (I tried the au poivre sauce and it was fine, but I got overcharged for it by $3— a drop in the bill’s big bucket, but still.) Mashed potatoes are $14, and the “roasted garlic” variety were studded with sharp, crunchy bits of utterly raw garlic.
There are plenty of other entrees besides steaks, but they were worse. For the prices, the food should be stellar and imaginative; instead, a $49 halibut entree, for instance, featured a stringy square of thin, overcooked fish topped with a tangle of greasy, unseasoned shoestring potatoes. The fish perched on a few button mushrooms and hard, flavorless Brussels sprouts in a plate-wide lake of filmy, thick pesto cream sauce, into which the grease from the potatoes and fish had dripped to make a nauseating oily yellow puddle.
While there’s nothing especially wrong with a well-executed pesto cream sauce, this wasn’t one, and it didn’t go with the fish or complement the few vegetables. It felt like a dull throwback, reminding me of Nora Ephron’s memorable line “Pesto is the quiche of the ’80s,” from “When Harry Met Sally.”
One nod to a more recent food trend came in the presence of pork belly, both in mac and cheese and on top of a goat cheese risotto. In the former, cavatappi studded with fatty lumps of pig cowered under a thick, not-quite-melted orange-and-white duvet of what the menu called “our three-cheese blend.” I’ve made many a convenience-food quesadilla for my kids, and this cheese bore a striking resemblance to a supermarket-style grated Colby-cheddar blend. A modestly sized ramekin went for $18.
The goat cheese risotto that comes with the pork-belly entrée also comes underneath a seared duck breast, which on my visit was actually two small, tough, mangled-looking pieces. The rice grains in the risotto were chalky within, and the sweet black cherry demiglaze pooling around it clashed oddly with the tangy risotto.
The presence of the same risotto in two dishes — as well as the hashbrown-like potato topping on both the halibut and an unappetizing salmon entrée — was almost insulting. I get that restaurant kitchens need to find ways to keep costs in check, but at these prices, creative and distinct platings are de rigueur, not the blatant cost-cutting of doubling up on embellishments.
So much about the conception of this restaurant feels off, starting with something as basic as the name, embossed in gold on the menu with a little representation of the Capitol above it. They are obviously trying to align with the government crowd, but state governments don’t actually engage in foreign diplomacy. The half-baked political puns on the menu (entrees are “dinner collaborations,” desserts are “the third reading”) underscore the feeling that nobody thought this concept through.
I’d rather have half-baked puns, however, than the half-cooked appetizer that came in the form of chicken beignets, fried with State Fair levels of grease but with raw cornmeal batter and little discernible chicken at the center. Bafflingly, the two beignets sat on top of sweet potato fries (not mentioned on the menu) and a dousing of maple syrup.
At lunch, I tried a cup of lobster bisque. It tasted strongly of sherry, with a lightly coagulated texture. Along with two chunks of sweet lobster, darker orange, gummy bits floated in it; I couldn’t figure them out until I remembered working at a food court Orange Julius when I was a teenager. Every night, we put the vat of nacho cheese in the walk-in; the next morning, we stirred the skin that formed over the top back in and hoped vainly that the pieces would dissolve when we reheated it. I’m not sure the soup clumps were skin, but I couldn’t think of what else they might be.
At the same lunch, my friend had the best dish I tried over three meals, a watermelon salad with four plump, well-cooked shrimp. The tarragon dressing needed a jolt of acid, and the awkward tilted bowl (when will that trend die?) made it hard to eat, but the greens were fresh enough. An oblong flatbread pizza studded with enough roasted garlic to kill a vampire was messy with sweet balsalmic syrup, bland tomato sauce, and tough crust.
I tried the signature The Diplomat salad. The seared prime rib alongside was the best thing about it. A molded tower of salad, which I didn’t expect from the menu description, had shreds of wilted iceberg in flavorless (though allegedly spicy) dressing, equally tasteless “marinated” mushrooms, a hard round of blue cheese, pallid tomatoes and red onions.
On another visit, a spinach salad had the same tasteless tomatoes (extra sad in September in Sacramento) and no dressing whatsoever. Plus, the servers forgot about it and delivered it after our entrees, with an apology but no offer to compensate for the error or the salad.
Service, overall, was well-meaning but unprofessional. In a quiet dining room on one visit, we could easily hear servers clustered by the kitchen discussing what had been 86ed and generally talking shop. On the other hand, that was a nice distraction from the overly loud music. Honestly, I never want to hear “Hey, Soul Sister,” but I especially don’t want to hear it during a dinner that’s going to set me back more than $200.
One server reminded me of an overeager puppy, bounding up to our table while we were mid-bite on entrees to ask if we had saved room for dessert. It turned out there’s a lava cake that has to be ordered 30 minutes in advance, but instead of graciously presenting an opportunity to order it, the server interrupted clumsily and made us feel rushed.
Speaking of that lava cake: Reader, we ordered it. It came dumped on the plate in a goopy pile that was hard at the edges and a mess in the middle, with a tiny scoop of melted, uninteresting vanilla ice cream and a careless pour of caramel sauce. (Confidential to the kitchen: the powdered sugar did not hide the fact that you broke the cake to bits unmolding it.) In the year of our lord 2018, charging $21 for a bog-standard, poorly made lava cake is pure effrontery.
Lava cake, just to review, was legitimately high-end circa the mid-1990s, when celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten debuted the idea and diners went wild for the lush molten center. The Diplomat presented their rendition as if it were something luxe and unique, but these days you can order molten chocolate cake at Applebee’s. It’s no longer fancy, especially if it arrives looking like something mauled it and offers only a thin cocoa flavor rather than the rounded bomb of dark chocolate and butter. My 13-year-old makes a better version than I got at The Diplomat. (I recommend the simple recipe from the New York Times, which bakes in 12 minutes — not 30.)
Other desserts included a cheesecake with a brûlée top, which was more or less fine, though the crust was mushy and some of the accompanying berries were obviously past their prime, carrot cake, and a shortcake they were out of.
Few choices were also apparent on the pricey wine list, which betrayed neither a thoughtful vision about wine nor an interest in presenting a distinctive, coherent wine program. Drinkers of whites in particular are out of luck, with barely more than a dozen options and a preponderance of Chardonnays. The cocktail program is a bit better, though it veers to the sweet; a French 77 (a spin on the classic French 75, but with elderflower liqueur) was sticky both in its flavor and the sloppy liquid on the champagne flute.
It’s too bad, because the bar and lounge area looks modern and inviting, and the dining room is pretty, with its comfortable booths and the bright emerald hues of mosses mounted as paneling.
The location is fantastic. I can see exactly why this place would appeal to the downtown government and lobbying crowd. Unfortunately, The Diplomat isn’t delivering on its implicit promises. Meretricious, showy and wildly expensive, this gimcrack restaurant might be the perfect metaphor for the governmental era we’re living through.
Even so, The Diplomat might survive, thanks to its proximity to the Capitol and many hefty expense accounts. If it does, it won’t be on its merits. It’s hard to imagine diners leaving satisfied after spending their own money here.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
The Diplomat Steakhouse
1117 11th St., Sacramento. 916-573-4083
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar. The wine list is short, with some bottles marked up as much as four times the retail (not wholesale) price and few by-the-glass selections. A punnily named cocktail list claims inventiveness, but hews closely to sweet and familiar basics.
Vegetarian friendly: Not very; it’s a steakhouse. There’s one vegetarian pasta dish, plus some pricey and poorly made veggie sides.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Conversational noise is modest inside, though that may be due to lack of crowds, but the cheesy piped-in music blares both indoors and out.
Ambiance: The atmosphere, a softer version of classic steakhouse clubbiness, is by far the best thing about this place: dove-gray paneling, pops of vibrant green mosses on the walls, and one of the best patios in town.
At this supposedly ultra-luxe but poorly executed downtown steakhouse, the overall vision is unclear, the prices are extremely high and the menu and concept are dated and incoherent. Even the steaks aren’t especially strong. There’s little to recommend here aside from the location and pleasant setting.
Running the gamut from mediocre to borderline inedible, dishes here suffer from sloppy execution, unimaginative menu concepts, and obvious economy measures from the kitchen (like using supposedly fancy embellishments in several dishes). Steaks lack a flavorful sear, fish is direly overcooked, sauces are simultaneously thin and greasy, salads come out with little or no dressing and beignets are mushy-raw inside.
Some servers are overeager, some blasé, and all seem barely professional, with plenty of service missteps from forgotten food to clumsy interruptions. That said, servers seemed genuinely warm, which can go a long way.
The outrageous price point at The Diplomat is keyed to the expense-account crowd, but even so it feels a con job. Steaks start at $48, simple vegetable sides are $15, salads and heftier sides around $18, and entrees can set you back $30-49, with no clarity about why the prices are so variable — and quality that doesn’t justify the charges.