Restaurant News & Reviews

The Year in Dining: Sacramento’s food scene hit many high notes, with one notable flat spot

Sacramento’s dining scene in 2018 started out a bit slow, with few big openings in the year’s early months. But by year’s end, the pace picked up to something nearly as frenetic as the regular news cycle. Below, I reflect on some of the most memorable flavors and meals — for good and ill — from a year of dining out in Sacramento.

Before we dig in, it’s worth noting The Bee’s policy is to wait for three months after opening before reviewing restaurants. That allows chefs and servers to settle in and work out any opening jitters — and, we feel, provides a fairer look at how the restaurant will serve guests going forward. Accordingly, this roundup covers food I ate and reviews I wrote in 2018. It thus includes a few established places and late-2017 openings and omits the newest of the hotspots.

New openings of the last several weeks include Tiger (722 K Street), which serves up eclectic snacks and share plates, dim sum style; former Grange chef Oliver Ridgeway’s London-inspired Camden Spit & Larder (555 Capitol Mall); and West Sacramento’s La Crosta (330 3rd St.), an upscale pizza joint from the owners of Midtown’s The Rind. I’m looking forward to trying all of those, and many more, in the new year.

For now, a look at the best (and worst) of 2018.

Best Pastrami Sandwich

Meanwhile, the website for one of the year’s most hotly anticipated projected openings — the downtown Solomon’s Delicatessen — still plaintively reads “opening soon.” Pastrami lovers, however, can always head over to the petite Davis branch (500 First St.). The house-cured pastrami from the kitchen run by Aimal Formoli, sliced thickly and served on rye, is some of the most succulent in the region. I didn’t love everything about Solomon’s, but lip-smacking, fatty, tender pastrami and the delicate yet punchy whitefish salad were real hits.

Pocket Gets a Hip Italian Spot

Tiny restaurants served up some of the biggest flavors I found this year, including both my first and one of my last reviews of the year. The latter, of the Pocket’s new Cacio (7600 Greenhaven Drive #23), yielded some of the best meatballs in town, a shockingly ethereal shaved Brussels sprouts salad and a winner of a seared-salmon dish with chewy farro, bright lemon oil and crunchy toasted walnuts. Don’t miss the distinctive salty-savory dessert of velvety ganache with grilled bread and olive oil.

Thai Food on Broadway

Reaching further back, my first review of the year covered wee, family-run Thai Farm House (1049 Broadway, Suite 40). There, I loved the Crying Tiger, a grilled beef dish with a tart, spicy sauce and earthy toasted rice powder. I also loved the subtly punchy, warming kao soi soup, full of noodles and yellow-curry flavor.

Discover a Hidden Green Elephant

Maybe I just love curried noodle soups. I fell hard for the milder Malaysian-style laksa at what might be my favorite find of the year, the minuscule Green Elephant in Loomis (5911 King Road), which was new to me but has been in business since 2014. This Burmese restaurant run by the gracious Rachel Phyu and her partner Moe Thu is the only place I know of in our region serving the distinctive dishes of Myanmar. The cuisine, complex but mostly gentle in its spices, shows clear influences from nearby Southeast Asian countries but it is all its own.

I enjoyed everything I tried at Green Elephant, but I was especially enamored of a lightly tart, traditional freshwater fish soup called mohingar, the head-clearing tangy rainbow salad, a ginger salad that pops in the mouth, and dusky beef and potato curry. Most of the time, my job keeps me so busy trying new places it’s hard to return to places much, but I can’t wait to go back for those Burmese flavors. It’s an ideal stop the next time you’re heading up I-80.

Best Gumbo

Closer to my usual beat, the East Sacramento revival of beloved onetime Midtown establishment Celestin’s (3610 McKinley Blvd.) may be a little cramped inside, but the gumbo is as generous as ever. The memorably sour, spicy ti-malice sauce and silky key lime pie both show a deft hand with citrus at this Haitian-inspired family place.

Memorable Modesty

Visiting modest places that shine is one of the joys of my job as a critic, and of the Sacramento restaurant scene more generally. Other memorable bites this year came from the broken-rice plates and banh hoi (tiny vermicelli) at Com Tam Dat Thanh (5035 Fruitridge Rd.), especially with lemongrass-scented grilled chicken and shrimp on sugarcane. In the summer, I took a look at — and many tastes of — the growth of halal dining options citywide. I couldn’t resist the lahmajoon (spicy lamb-topped flatbread), samoon (diamond-shaped Iraqi bread) and best-in-town baklava from Mediterranean Bakery and Cuisine (1547 Fulton Ave.). Shoutouts also go to the majestic lamb shanks at Tanoor Halal (2212 Arden Way) and Babylon City Market (1745 Watt Ave.).

A Four-Star Lamb Dish

Speaking of lamb, possibly the most memorable dish of my year was the lamb at a place that’s the polar opposite of these smaller spots: Canon (1719 34th St.), the splashy, pricey East Sacramento spot that earned my only four-star review to date. Although Canon opened in 2017, I reviewed it early in 2018, and I was gobsmacked by the crispy lamb pavé, a cube of improbably fluffy, light shredded lamb meat griddled-toasted to crunchiness on the outside and utterly tender within. With a yogurt sauce and pillowy flatbreads, it was a great dish.

The menu at Canon changes frequently, but Chef Brad Cecchi also shines with vegetables: the dramatic pickled vegetable appetizer has been justly celebrated, and I couldn’t stop eating a khuri squash with burnt onions and vadouvan rice crisps.

Best Veggie Dish

Vegetables are also half the focus at gorgeous, stylish Beast and Bounty (1701 R St.), the biggest opening of 2018. Chef Brock Macdonald’s roasted celery root dish, for instance, sounds unassuming but was a flavor bomb, with a rich depth. Macdonald also has a strong hand with the beast part of the menu, as in an on-point duck confit balanced with sour-hot mint leaf salad.

Pastries to Savor

Pastry chef Rebecka Smith’s cream puffs with craquelin topping, cranberry and lemon curd were an ambitious sweet ending. Canon, too, offered a memorable dessert with chef de cuisine Jodie Chavious’s killer gluten-free chocolate cake with almond buttercream.

Sadly, I find desserts can be a weakness at Sacramento restaurants, since few can employ full-time pastry chefs. An exception is Grange Restaurant and Bar (926 J Street), which I reviewed for its 10th anniversary, but which feels fresh. I loved the poached pear and fresh ginger cake from pastry chef Alison Clevenger.

Best Appetizers

Chef Dane Blom is doing excellent work on the savory side. I won’t forget the jewel-like “Grange toast,” with pickled beets, horseradish and popping steelhead roe, among the best appetizers of my year.

Two other sublime appetizers came from Allora (5215 Folsom Blvd.), which I visited in spring: green and white asparagus with a smoked aioli, tiny cubes of pancetta and powdered herbs; and sous-vide octopus with cheesy, tiny gnocchi in a pool of ink. Allora does fish beautifully, and I also ate a memorable swordfish dish there.

Worst Dish of 2018

A fish dish from downtown’s The Diplomat (1117 11th St.) was memorable in a bad way, as the hands-down worst dish I had this year. Stringy, overcooked halibut in a congealed pesto cream sauce sat on an oil-slicked bed of shoestring potatoes. The dish was bad, but the exorbitant prices were worse. The Diplomat, which also served undercooked chicken beignets and lobster bisque with a skin on it, spawned what must have been my most-read review of the year and was certainly the most negative.

Happily, I felt The Diplomat was the exception rather than the rule for Sacramento restaurants these days. For the most part, I ate very well in my job as dining critic, with few notably terrible meals and not too many mediocre ones. Sacramento’s restaurant standards are high, and I both hope and expect that they’ll keep rising in the year to come. But good, bad or ugly, I’ll certainly be letting you all know what I think.

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