Let's imagine what we would come up with if we wanted to open the very best restaurant around.
The room: It has to be comfortable, stylish and smart but not draw too much attention to itself. On a busy night, it should be full of life but not loud, engaging without feeling crowded.
The wait staff: These folks must understand everything about the food. They anticipate customers' needs and notice all the little wants. They are professional without being stodgy, precise without looking trained. Plates and silverware appear and disappear without fanfare.
The food: It has to start with the best ingredients. Then, it should tell a story and stand for something, and it must entertain. In that sense, it should be creative, eclectic, accessible, exciting and precise.
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Then you have to come up with a name – and good grief, that's harder than it looks. Name it for a street corner? A beloved white truffle? Something Italian? Local? Finally, in a moment of resignation and with your life's dream riding on it, you grab the thesaurus and look up "food."
These wonderful components of a restaurant and the simple name to go with it already exist. Taste Restaurant – named, indeed, by thumbing through a thesaurus – is tucked away in the Amador County town of Plymouth, population 980. Four years after Mark and Tracey Berkner opened Taste, it is doing everything so well that it can easily be considered one of the region's finest dining experiences.
One of my meals – the seared duck breast ($30) topped with foie gras that had been sautéed in a citrusy yuzu marmalade – was perfection, from the simple presentation to the texture and flavors of the meat, and the accompanying wild-rice pudding positioned next to a bed of sautéed dandelion greens.
The same could be said for the grilled rack of lamb ($37) with hazelnut spaetzle and a gastrique made of dried figs and a reduction of red wine vinegar.
On and on go the high notes of a wide-ranging menu. Pork two ways ($28) – lean tenderloin as a counterpoint to a decadent pork belly – plated with a delicious fava bean cake made with minced shallots and a modicum of pork fat. A thick, simple filet mignon ($35) with black garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach.
The kitchen also handles fish very well, evidenced by the nightly special on one visit, a thick piece of Alaskan halibut ($32) with black quinoa from Peru, a ricotta and saffron timbale, and an artistic orange flourish of saffron aioli.
Then there is a witty appetizer called "mushroom cigars" ($9.50): three kinds of mushrooms sautéed and wrapped in phyllo dough with fresh goat cheese, then placed upright in separate beds of puréed potatoes with spoonfuls of porcini sauce.
The desserts had a tough act to follow. Our favorite was the "chocolate fix" ($10), featuring three small variations of chocolate desserts arranged side by side: a warm lava cake, a mocha mousse and a milk chocolate semifreddo. This is an expensive dessert but one so large and rich that it would easily satisfy two.
I rank the new American style of cooking on display here only marginally behind the Kitchen in Sacramento and Ambience in Carmichael, (both restaurants with prix fixe menus with similarly blank-canvas names) and on par with a much-admired spot like the Waterboy. So let the synonyms fly. Dynamic. Smart. Romantic. And yes, expensive. Taste will neither insult your intelligence nor spare your pocketbook.
Going to Taste – arranging for a sitter, getting off work early, making the hourlong drive from Sacramento out to the charming countryside – is about more than eating. It is an event, one that will cost upward of $150 for dinner for two with an excellent bottle of wine.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. You don't have to be wealthy to dine at Taste, but you do have to consider food, wine (or beer), service and ambience important components of a life worth living.
That is the belief of the Berkners, who met years ago while working as line cooks at a hotel restaurant. In 1996, they purchased the St. George Hotel in the remote Gold Rush town of Volcano, where Tracey's father resides. But they had their sights set on opening a fine-dining restaurant and settled on Plymouth.
Mark would be executive chef. Tracey would run the front of the house and handle the wine program.
"We call it casual elegance. Right from the beginning, part of the vision that Tracey and I had was to make it approachable and not pretentious," Mark Berkner told me by phone.
His menus, which change with the seasons, are a collaboration with the kitchen team. The seared duck breast I so admired was the result of sous chef Peter DeCorti and Berkner putting the components together.
When Taste opened, Berkner declared there would be no chicken on the menu – too common, too easy. However, the most recent menu includes an excellent guinea hen, which tastes like a very tender and moist cross between chicken and turkey. The leg and thigh pieces are deboned, rolled in herbs and seared, the breast stuffed with manchego cheese.
We could go on and on with successes. But let's conclude with another hit, a slight miscue and the smallest of sour notes at evening's end.
The duck confit salad ($11) was our wonderful starter on an earlier visit and was a treat, with the smoked duck sitting on a bed of cannelloni beans topped with a smattering of delicate greens, then topped again with a poached egg. Pierce the egg and the yolk oozes into the salad.
The miss? We said Taste was superb, but it's not perfect. The attention- getting "pork two ways" featured one wrong way – our tenderloin, included in the dish to offset the richness of the pork belly, was on the dry side. With such a lean cut, it's easy to forgive the overcooking. But when the expectations – and the prices – are this high, this is significant enough that it could have been sent back.
And if a restaurant is going to be considered among the very best, there is room for quibbling. In this case, our doggie bag for the $37 lamb was a rather unbecoming see-through plastic box not unlike what we would see at KFC.
But wait. There is more than enough excellence, including a wine list that is thorough and engaging (one wine we picked was described simply with "Oh my!"), with different styles in each category. The focus is on the area's very good and perhaps unfamiliar wines, though several European labels are offered as well.
We succeeded with two fine bottles: a luxuriously smooth 2006 red called Dunimas ($55) from Narrow Gate Vineyards of El Dorado County that is a blend of Rhone-style varietals; and a rich and structured red blend called Sierra Legend 2005 ($50) from nearby C.G. Di Arie Vineyard.
The beer list is also wide-ranging. It's the work of Taste manager Tracy Reiser, who is studying to be certified as a cicerone, the beer equivalent of a sommelier. Taste not only has the occasional wine dinner but has special beer pairing dinners as well.
Further, vegans and those with gluten sensitivity are not only accommodated but, with advance notice, are presented special dishes created exclusively for them.
The food, the wine, the beer, the service and the entire concept at Taste are so finely tuned and impressive that there is enough to experience on several excursions to the countryside.
Four years after that struggle to find a name for their dream led them to a reference book, the Berkners and company have a restaurant that is synonymous with "excellent."