Restaurant News & Reviews

Tiger offers flashy takes and Instagram-worthy walls, but the food is off-balance

The team behind midtown’s popular Red Rabbit has moved from prey to predator with its bold and sleek new downtown bar-restaurant, Tiger. Veteran restaurateur Sonny Mayugba and his partners have been planning to open something up in a former K Street tattoo parlor since – wait for it­ – 2012.

That’s right: this place has been in the making since the Maloofs owned the Kings and a downtown arena, now gleaming just two blocks away, was just a developers’ pipe dream. How things have changed.

Tiger’s concept changed too over time, as Mayugba and partners waited until more housing was built nearby and then did a complete buildout of the long-abandoned space – though they left some cool graffiti in the gritty downstairs that now serves as the dining room. That inspired the hard-edged, urban-punk space. It has geometric plastic light fixtures that evoke the 80s, lots of black and stripes, yellow velvet banquettes, and neon burning bright, plus a tiger-printed wall: invitations to the immortal eye of Instagram.

All this represents a bold shift from Sacramento’s prevailing reclaimed-wood restaurant aesthetic. The menu is a hard swerve from prevailing norms, too. Bar bites make up the bulk of the menu, which bills itself as American dim sum and includes cart service. That’s an idea that’s been percolating in big urban centers for a while (think San Francisco’s State Bird) but is new here.

I’m just as glad to see a new place opening that isn’t in thrall to the farm-to-fork mandate, but the jury is still out on whether Tiger can make its big idea work. This kitchen puts out a loud roar with its freewheeling energy and creativity, but its disparate flavor profiles can and sometimes do go astray.

On one of my visits, there were only a few people at the upstairs bar and two tables of diners in the downstairs dining room, which frames a second bar symmetrically. (Note: the host station is at the back of the dim bar area, not by the door, a design choice I always find a little unfriendly.) Things get busier – sometimes extremely busy – when there’s a basketball game or a concert on. In a rare move for a Sacramento restaurant, Tiger’s service reaches deep into the forests of the night, including a stripped-down late-night menu.

If the design and hours both make it sound like the bars are central, that’s correct. The cocktail menu is as long as the bites menu and at least as good. The drinks were interesting and thoughtful, but not so high-concept they were hard to like. The refreshing Wink and a Nod boasted dry gin and cucumber. The spicy tequila-based White Light/White Heat was fruity but balanced. Even the signature Tiger’s Milk, an improbable frozen concoction with crème de cacao and genever gin, wasn’t too sweet and was a lot of fun. Draft cocktails aren’t bad, though I found the old-fashioned overbalanced with orange.

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White Light / White Heat a drink made with altos blanco tequila, pineapple, serrano syrup and ruby go wild at Tiger on Monday, March 25, 2019 in Sacramento. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

On that sparsely populated night, our server offered to send out carts specially, but the fun of discovery diminishes when you know the carts are a plant. Still, I was glad to see them since they offered nearly the only vegetables on offer, particularly a beet “poke” and an excellent, if tiny, shaved greens salad dusted with nutritional yeast.

On another visit, it was busier and carts came around a little more often, including almost as soon as we sat down. At present, Mayugba says about 30 percent of sales come from the cart service; I’ll be interested to see if Tiger continues the conceit or eventually changes its stripes.

Several of the bites are vegetarian but don’t exactly fit the menu role of lightening things up played by vegetables, such as zesty, crunchy patatas bravas with romesco or an odd cart dish of “elotes.” Rather than the traditional seasoned corn on the cob, this was a square of polenta with mayonnaise, spices and cheese.

In a less modern vein, shrimp salad served in a hollowed avocado was like a classic grandma-style luncheon (I mean that as a compliment), with mayo, pungent onions and sweet shrimp meat offset by silky avocado. Two other surprising throwback-style dishes were a cutely tiny but over-dense bacon cheese ball, and a savory, straight-up-the-middle trout dip.

In keeping with its name, Tiger is highly carnivorous, punctuated by a few vegan dishes. If your preferred diet is the human, upscale version of that of a cat who occasionally likes to nibble on a houseplant, you’ll be very happy here. Bites include pork ribs with a pinchos glaze, pork and beef sliders, and a gluten-free lamb mac and cheese. The latter, unfortunately, had sharp cheddar flavor that would have been nice on its own but clashed with the gamy, fatty chunks of tender braised lamb, which also would have been good in a different application.

The few big share plates – which Mayugba says will be expanded in due course – include a giant steak, Cornish game hen, and a whole sea bass, the latter moist and beautifully seasoned, with feather-thin shavings of fennel and radish plus crunchy almonds. It was a gorgeous dish, but the whole fish and slightly inadequate serving utensils posed a challenge for our table; with a bone-in fish, it would have been great if servers could offer a little more assistance with dishing it up.

Both vegan lumpia – filled with winter squash and served with spicy peanut sauce – and crispy lamb “cigars” were excellent little rolls for dipping. But the kitchen sent out both cut in half lengthwise, which was peculiar. Why go to the trouble of making a roll and then cut it open? Isn’t half the fun biting into the slender, crunchy-all-over pastry?

Flavors from the eclectic kitchen were all over the map, making for occasionally incoherent and unbalanced meals. I left the restaurant, after two different dinners, feeling both faintly hungry and overfed.

To my surprise, dishes that seemed like they ought to be highly seasoned, like harissa chicken wings, took perhaps too light a hand with the salt and spice. In a dish of Thai fried peanuts, I found myself gnawing the whole dried chiles instead of the peanuts to get some flavor.

Leek and chicken meatballs in lemon jus were bland. Deviled eggs, prettily pickled in different colors that were also supposedly evidence of different flavors, were not especially distinguishable.

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Pickled Devil Eggs at Tiger on Monday, March 25, 2019 in Sacramento. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

One unfortunate exception was badly overmatched seared shishito peppers, drowned in distant deeps of bacon and a thick, greasy miso sauce. Miso worked better paired with yuzu in aioli accompanying crunchy, fantastic delicata squash “fries.”

Frying is a strength here. Lunch service just started a couple of weeks ago, and the best dish I had at Tiger was a sandwich from the (very different) lunch menu: a crispy fish sandwich with the lightest fried batter I’ve sampled in this town, perfectly tangy slaw piled on the challah bun, and excellent housemade kettle-style chips. Salads were also strong at lunch. In one, red quinoa, black beans, mixed vegetables and kale with avocado were offset with a tangy paprika-lime dressing. With juicy grilled chicken added, it was a filling lunch that offered all the balance dinner service lacked.

The dessert list is short (there’s no pastry chef), but more unusual and ambitious than at many similar restaurants, with picks like a winter squash pot de crème and granita in changing flavors, with tapioca pearls. My companion and I tried the poppyseed macaron sandwiched with gently sweet lemon custard ice cream, which came garnished with shaved fennel. It was a little weird, but in a good way, and I appreciate that Tiger is putting some effort and creativity into its desserts.

This is a menu that seems far better designed for the casual snacker – or drinker – than for the serious diner. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. If what you want is a sense of discovery, noshes before a game or late-night nibbles to temper all the drinks you’ve tossed back, Tiger is just the place. If you’re more into traditional meals, try it for a downtown lunch – but be forewarned that familiar dinner fare is a bit of an endangered species here.

Tiger

722 K Street

Info: 916-382-9610, tiger700block.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. (Note: Kitchen generally closes at midnight, but may continue serving later on busy nights.)

Beverage options: Full bar with original specialty cocktails, including some on draft. Cocktails are the focus, but the short beer and wine lists (including draft choices) should have something for most tastes.

Vegetarian friendly: Not especially, though there are a few vegan items, especially on the carts.

Gluten-free options: There is a gluten-free mac and cheese, but that’s the only item called out as such on the menu, though some other items should be safe.

Noise levels: High when it’s busy, thanks to echo-y concrete walls.

Ambiance: Brash and buzzy, with original graffiti downstairs and 80s-ish – but selfie friendly – neon, black, and a tiger accent wall upstairs. Tiny tables and deep, velvety benches look cool but can be a bit challenging to actually eat at.

Overall

1/2

This downtown bar-restaurant from the Red Rabbit team has a fresh, forward-thinking concept – cart service that’s exciting in theory, but a little awkward and uneven in practice. The “American dim sum” menu is all over the place, despite some good flavors from chef Eric Sarmento and a promising new lunch service. Cocktail drinkers who just want a few nibbles with drinks, however, should be pretty happy.

Food

1/2

The bites-focused kitchen is turning out a grab bag of wildly varying fare: some strong dishes (vegan lumpia, a whole roasted sea bass, a killer fried fish sandwich at lunch) and a few big misses (inexplicable lamb mac and cheese, shishito peppers drowning in miso). The evening menu works best for those stopping in for bar snacks; it’s hard to build a balanced-feeling dinner.

Service

Servers are accommodating, attentive and eager to explain and foster the rather unusual service concept, but the featured carts can be a little scarce when the restaurant is slow.

Value

1/2

“Bites” and the small plates on carts range from $5 to $12, but you need a lot of them to fill you up, so the bill can climb quickly. Large plates, which are few, vary from $25 to $65 (for a 2-pound ribeye). Cocktails are reasonable at $12. Lunch is in line with downtown prices, with generously portioned sandwiches and salads mostly in the mid-teens.

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