The charming old downtown of Fair Oaks is known for wandering chickens and the nutburger at Sunflower, but it’s long been a little short on modern style or upscale dining. That changes with the advent of Shangri-la, a gracefully sprawling walled compound that feels a bit like a Palm Springs vacation and serves modern-American small plates and craft cocktails.
Opened this summer, Shangri-la offers both a wide, alluring patio – complete with bocce courts – and a jewel-toned, palm- and peacock-accented dining room, with a bar that opens to the outside, SoCal style, connecting them. It can work as either a place to hang out with the family or a big group of friends or to go on a date; inside is sophisticated, outside is laid back, and all of it is gorgeous. The space owes much of its flair to owner Sommer Peterson, who grew up locally, helped launch the West Elm brand, and opened restaurants in the Bay Area before returning to Fair Oaks.
The menu calls the fare “elevated comfort food,” and executive chef Jodie Chavious, most recently of Canon, has devised small and large share plates with a mix of international flavors. The presentation style may remind those familiar with Canon of her former employer, with thick sauces smeared on the rims of bowls (a style I’m never quite sure about) and casually elegant heaped platters.
Before the food, though, there’s the cocktail menu. The bar, resplendent with gold stools, is the inviting, bustling focal point of the dining room. The cocktail list is thematically appropriate: heavy on updated twists on classic cocktails, like the Newfangled, a bourbon drink that switches up the traditional old fashioned by using Demerara sugar infused with fig and pink peppercorn, plus Cynar, rather than bitters and sweetened fruit. I’m not sure I could taste fig or the bite of peppercorn, but I generally like a drink of barely adulterated bourbon on the rocks and this one was no exception.
The house Manhattan, similarly – rye, Punt e Mes, Averna, and cherry bark and vanilla bitters – gilded the lily and ended up tasting much like a nice Manhattan. Brown liquors dominate, there’s also a nicely balanced Paper Plane made with Four Roses bourbon, but gin lovers will find a Corpse Reviver and the Shangroni (yes, it’s a twist on a Negroni). A watermelon margarita and the Everything’s Peachy, with cachaca and house peach syrup, were summery choices available on my visits, but they may yield to more autumnal flavors as the seasons turn.
The wine list is short but inclusive of several different styles, with everything available both by the glass and the bottle, and relatively reasonably price, and there are several beers on tap. In a nice service touch, servers offered to bring tastes of both beers and wines for hesitating patrons. Nondrinkers have good options in Seedlip-based mixed drinks like the aromatic, not-too-sweet Kauai, with spice, pineapple and orgeat, and The Business, with peaches. Be warned: at $8, these may seem pricey for a nonalcoholic drink.
The food menu on my visits also had several summer choices such as a summer melon salad and the heirloom tomato panzanella. The latter had great flavors but an odd concept: enormous chunks of tomato (some seemed to be half of an entire tomato) with what the menu called corn fritters, a lush splotch of burrata, cucumbers and bacon jam. I had a hard time detecting the latter, and the corn fritters were more like hush puppies; I think of fritters as having kernels in them. Panzanella is traditionally a bread salad, so I was puzzled by the inclusion of just a few of those fritters and no bread to soak up the tomato juices – which were in any case in short supply, since those chunks were so big.
That and the Little Gem salad were my biggest disappointments at Shangri-la. The salad had mouth-puckering pickled peaches, an all but flavorless dressing, and something called “rye crumble.” I was hoping for crunchy crumbs (something like those garlicky little rye crisps you get sometimes in snack mix) but instead the lettuce came topped with a stale-tasting, sweet powder with no crunch and little rye flavor.
A bowl of Chioggia beets was a better bet for vegetables, as was the summer vegetable tempura. The beets came with avocado cream and tangy cotija cheese that balanced the roots’ sweetness. Vegetable tempura wasn’t exactly salad-healthy but it was salty and fried crisp and unusual in texture, thanks to a lot of feather-light fried greens.
The kitchen has a way with root vegetables, serving root chips and grilled carrots as well as a bowl of smoked potatoes thick with flavor and crunchy outside, with astringent walnut-arugula pesto. As that lineup suggests, there are good options here for vegetarians, and the menu is clearly marked to indicate vegan and vegetarian dishes – a boon for plant-based eaters.
I also enjoyed the small plate of buttery mushroom pappardelle with musky chanterelles (which I wanted more of) and feathery chervil. The pasta itself could have used a little more body and chew, but it was overall a pleasing dish.
The standout among the carb-y small plates, however, was a plate of milk bread buns, light as a down pillow and a perfect match with silky bone-marrow butter and garlicky scape butter. Don’t miss them; our table tore apart the rolls with ardor. Tiny duck liver tostadas were also a hit, with the bright note of pickled plums and gaminess of liver.
Larger plates include many of the usual protein suspects: grilled flat-iron steak, spare ribs with gojuchang (a Korean chili paste), harissa-rubbed chicken. I liked the latter, with a generous smear of the not-too-spicy Moroccan condiment and a lot of tang from salty preserved lemons, plus juicy, well-cooked flesh.
I loved the whole branzino, with nicely blistered skin, the mild white fish flesh within moist and perfectly cooked. It came scattered with marcona almonds, pickled golden raisins, and green olives – and after the too-sour bite of the pickled plums on the Little Gem salad, I was a little worried about those raisins. Here, however, the gentler pickling shone, and all the flavors melded into a harmonious whole.
There’s a short dessert menu, but the signature is the baked Alaska, done in a modern take, in keeping with the midcentury-revival theme. Here, the presentation is a brick-shaped slab of vanilla ice cream topping fudgy, gluten-free chocolate cake (something that seems to be a specialty of Chavious’s), with a thin, crisp layer of chocolate on top. The whole is covered with a very thin layer of torched meringue. I wished for a little more meringue and just a little less torching; in spots, mine tasted like a marshmallow that caught fire in spots.
Big, beautiful, luxurious, and alluring in a stylish retro package: that baked Alaska is a good analogue for Shangri-la as a whole. Maybe there are a few minor stumbles along the way, but for the most part a dinner or long hangout there feels like a fun, flavorful escape. It’s an ambitious opening for Fair Oaks, but after all, the surrounding suburbs were mostly built up in the same era as the Palm Springs heyday. And if this part of the suburbs have long been a little sleepy, they may well be eager for something new and different. Shangri-la offers that; it will be interesting to see how well it takes hold.
7960 Winding Way, Fair Oaks. 916-241-9473. Shangrilafairoaks.com
Hours: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Cuisine type: Modern American
Price range: Small plates $5-16, larger plates (designed to share) $16-32
Food: The shareable menu is creative and mostly strong, with a few bewildering misses. Go for pillowy milk bread with lush bone marrow butter, whole branzino with almonds and olives, and smoked potatoes; skip the Little Gem salad.
Service: Mostly professional and smooth, with no major hitches and strong knowledge about the menu offerings.
Ambiance: The glamorous interior and expansive outdoor compound bring a Palm Springs-ish updated midmo vibe to otherwise quiet Fair Oaks, with deep teal walls, gold pendant lights and barstools, and palm frond and peacock motifs throughout.
Accessibility considerations: The widely spaced tables on the patio are relatively easy to navigate. Inside, there are a few tight turns but banquettes are comfortable and accommodating. There’s a dedicated parking lot, but it can fill up on busy nights.
Noise levels: Very loud when the main dining room is full, but moderate outside on the patio and reasonable when it’s not jam-packed inside. Smaller side rooms may afford some noise relief.
Drinks: Full bar with original craft cocktails, a compact but appealing wine list, and some sophisticated mixed nonalcoholic drinks as well.
Vegetarian options: The relatively short menu offers several vegetarian small plates, clearly marked on the menu, and a few vegan choices as well.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Gluten-free dishes are plentiful (including at dessert) and are noted on the menu, which also includes menu descriptions noting the use of nuts and thus feels easy to navigate for those with common allergens.