Restaurant News & Reviews

Restaurant review: Camden Spit & Larder provides a cheeky, tasty take on English food

If your reaction to the idea of a British restaurant in Sacramento is to joke about bangers and mash, Oliver Ridgeway is here to change your mind. Formerly of Grange, the British-by-birth Ridgeway has opened the gleaming new Camden Spit & Larder on Capitol Mall in part as tribute to his own much-maligned culinary heritage.

The bad rap this cuisine gets is largely undeserved, unless you have the misfortune to be eating at a boarding school or Fawlty Towers. Not only does British food have a tradition of solid, meaty excellence that especially befits this rainy season, but it’s also had a major renaissance in recent years, as evidenced by Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and, yes, The Great British Bake-Off.

Of course, Camden Spit & Larder also bills itself a celebration of the region’s bounty, as is de rigueur for any big opening in this farm-to-fork capital. That’s the idea behind the “Larder” (the Anglicism for “pantry”) part of the name. The “Spit,” if you’re unfamiliar, refers to roasting on a rotisserie, and “Camden” is not just a neighborhood in Ridgeway’s native London but also the name of his young son.

Ridgeway’s gestures to British food are, like the restaurant’s name, mixed with other influences. Yes, there’s excellent roast beef, prepared on that spit, as well as several kinds of gin and tonic and a banoffee pie for dessert. But there’s also vegan mushroom pâté, a bright pappardelle with earthy kale pesto, and a soup-salad-sandwich deal at lunch for the neighborhood’s many business lunchers.

A word on the location: Camden’s location, less than a block from the VIP entrance to Golden 1, feels like as bold a move as its concept. Capitol Mall has long been a quiet location for restaurants, with a few stalwarts but not much innovation. Camden, which has gone into a corner of the 555 office building that’s also home to the long-running House, upends that. Smartly, Ridgeway opens the restaurant for special events (such as the recent Justin Timberlake concert) and offers online ordering and lunch boxes for office workers.

Hopefully the restaurant’s expansion of its service will at some point include the dinner menu. If I had a complaint, it’s that the entrée menu at dinner is lacking in choice, with just a few options. Lunch, however, offers numerous sandwiches, including an absolutely stellar grilled cheese with caramelized onion and specialty cheeses, plus a Cubano, a Wagyu burger and a fish sandwich. A plate of crunchy pickled vegetables, including feather-thin slices of jalapeno, was a nice way to cut through the richness.

There’s also a “triple nickel” lunch deal, with a soup, small salad and half sandwich. The name refers to the address, 555; as my companion pointed out, surely to fit the theme the price should be $15 rather than $19. That quibble aside, it was a satisfying lunch, with a deeply chicken-y bowl of chicken soup with vegetables and noodles and a perfect frilly-leafed salad.

Many share plates and sides overlap between the lunch and dinner menus. My friend and I loved the farmer’s cheese, a house-made interpretation of a classic English style: tangy and creamy dairy in a pool of olive oil, contrasting with piquant chiles and sweet butternut squash cubes and candied garlic.

A brasher choice, the steak tartare, is a perfect cylinder of tender meat topped with a cured egg yolk and shavings of fermented horseradish. Light-as-air Worcestershire potato chips alongside added to the luxe feeling of ordering at a London gentleman’s club – as did the pinstriped seat backs, touches of plaid and clubby, cushy leather banquettes.

I appreciated Camden Spit & Larder’s coherent vision, from the use of the same font as the London Underground for the logo to the offering of tender mini crumpets for the local Passmore Ranch caviar service, offered at three price points. Granted, I would have accepted the yeasty little pancakes just as happily if they were called blini, given the thick crème fraiche and gently salty fish eggs that came with them.

Having a dedicated caviar service available adds a distinct air of celebration and luxury to Camden Spit & Larder. There’s also cheese service, though I was a little disappointed in the familiarity of the rotating cheeses on offer, such as Humboldt Fog and Fiscalini cheddar – good cheeses, too be sure, but common these days.

Camden Spit & Larder places a strong emphasis on hospitality, with all the warm welcome of, say, an interwar country house, but none of the formality.

Service was highly professional, with cutlery seamlessly whisked away and lots of attention from staffers who were uniformly kind and pleasant without being overfamiliar. Full disclosure, I was recognized on at least two of my visits. Observing tables around me, however, I spotted a similar level of service extended to other guests on my two dinner visits, one on a quieter night and one on a busy Saturday.

Beginning with drinks is a safe bet at Camden Spit & Larder, which has a strong cocktail list and also extends its hospitality to nondrinkers with a daily fresh spritzer or two. On my visits, the choices included blood orange, a complex and haunting strawberry-thyme and a pear-cinnamon, all excellent.

There are four kinds of reimagined gin and tonics and plenty of other gin drinks, fittingly for the London theme, plus a Pimm’s Cup and other cocktails. I loved the balanced, astringent Potobello #171, with cracked pepper and a pansy garnish. I also found it refreshing to find a bar serving excellent cocktails but not getting too precious about its ice: at Camden, they’re just regular cubes (and plenty of them, so as not to worry any Americans scarred by pub memories of warm beer). The wine and beer lists are tightly edited but wide-ranging, with options for varied palates.

SAC_PK_CAMDEN_0638
A gin and tonic at Cadmen Spit and Larder. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Pub lovers, rejoice: the sausage rolls here, on the appetizer menu, are flaky and porky and wonderful. Another slam dunk was the light, perfectly golden brown salt-cod fritters, with a subtle fish flavor and a malt-vinegar aioli that nods to a sophisticated spin on fish and chips.

A vegan mushroom pate, served in a charming glass jar that referenced the “larder” part of the name, was on the runny side for a pate but offered rich umami flavor – and though the pile of craggy, toasty grilled bread alongside seemed small, servers solicitously offered to bring more as we ate.

Entrees will change with the seasons and availability here: a seafood dish was beautifully seared scallops on one visit and salon on the next. Ridgeway says, however, that his roast chicken and roast beef will be perennials. Justifiably so: the juicy roast chicken, served with olive-oil-whipped potatoes, is a straightforward classic.

The thick slice of roast beef comes in two sizes: the Camden cut, at 12 ounces, and a 16-ouncer. The former provided me with a large dinner and a stellar sandwich at home the next day, and was cooked to absolute perfection, with a peppery crust and meltingly tender, rosy beef within, pungent horseradish, tender watercress and slightly overcrunchy haystack potatoes alongside.

On a second dinner visit, I veered in the opposite direction to try a vegan entrée of charred broccoli on a black-garlic soubise, with chermoula (a north African herb sauce) and confit carrots. The stems of the broccoli were a bit tough and undercooked, making it hard to eat, but the well-roasted florets and sauces were wonderful, alongside the sweet pop of onions. The carrots may have been the only cooked carrots I’ve ever willingly finished.

On the side, fried white polenta cubes with earthy beet ketchup and a dusting of parmesan were a study in contrasts. Chicken-fat rice with bejeweled bits of vegetables and cracklings on top was a great idea, but the rice itself was a bit dried out and the cracklings more chewy than shatter-crisp

My husband tried a lamb shank special that was so good he kept eating long past when he was full. I stole bites to grab the buttery essence-of-parsnip puree, fall-off-the-bone meat and cubes of vibrant beet. “I’m just eating for the sheer fun of it now,” he said, summing up a lot of what’s good about Camden Spit & Larder: being there, and eating there, are a lot of fun.

That sense wobbles just a bit at dessert time. Ridgeway and chef de cuisine Clint Johns handle all the pastry production, and the execution of sweets was a little uneven; once again, I wish more Sacramento restaurants could employ dedicated pastry chefs. The banoffee pie, a thick wedge of toffee and banana tart with whipped cream, ought to encapsulate pure joy but tasted a bit stodgy with its heavy, hard-to-cut graham-cracker crust. A vegan and gluten-free chocolate tart was better, but so intensely rich it was hard to finish.

Lemon custard made me smile: on my first visit, it was called “lemon posset” (an old English term) on the menu, but by my third meal it had apparently confused so many guests that the menu description retreated to the safer “custard.” In any case, it was silky and very thick, with mini meringues and a pair of ginger cookies alongside that were very soft, rather than the snaps they were described as.

I hope Ridgeway won’t have to back off more of the restaurant’s quirky Britishness over time. It’s a treat to see a fresh concept for fine dining, and one that’s carried through with consistency and a sense of delight. Overall, at Camden Spit & Larder that vision is realized with a very British blend of propriety, charm and dry wit.

Camden Spit & Larder

555 Capitol Mall #100, Sacramento. 916-619-8897. Camdenspitandlarder.com

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, plus additional bar hours and openings for special events (check website).

Beverage options: Full bar with craft cocktails that lean to gin concoctions, plus a thoughtful if brief wine list, local beer and cider on tap and a daily-changing mocktail.

Vegetarian friendly: Options are somewhat limited considering the menu’s concept relies on rotisserie, but there’s are inventive and delicious vegan options in every menu category.

Gluten-free options: Yes, including one gluten-free dessert; diners should inquire if uncertain.

Noise levels: There’s a pleasant hubbub when the restaurant is full, but it accommodates normal-volume conversation easily. The design includes successful efforts at noise abatement, including subtle acoustic ceiling tiles that look like pressed tin.

Ambiance: Think welcoming British gentleman’s club with a wink and a nod: leather banquettes and pinstriped fabric on the chair backs contrast with an open kitchen, a very Sac patio for when the rain stops and cheeky faux portraits.

Overall

1/2

Chef Oliver Ridgeway, formerly of Grange, fulfills a bold vision for a California-British brasserie here, offering solid comfort and excellent fare in a lively setting that never takes itself too seriously. It’s worth a special-occasion splurge, but also a welcome addition for downtown lunch.

Food

1/2

Roast beef, steak tartare, farmers cheese, sausage rolls and salt-cod fritters all shine, showing off the kitchen’s modern-British flair – but Ridgeway and chef de cuisine Clint Johns also showcase local products, as in a delightful Passmore Ranch caviar service or rack of pork with endive. Desserts are a bit of a weakness.

Service

Polished and seamless service befitting the British theme, but with a very California hint of informality and fun. If you’re worried about stuffiness, don’t be.

Value

There’s no doubt it’s on the pricey side; this is a place that offers a caviar service. But it’s not gouging and the quality befits the pricing: appetizers are in the teens, mains start at $22 and there are some reasonable lunches for under $20.

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