Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining: 2012 left its mark, often deliciously

As 2012 comes to a close and we gear up for many more dining adventures in the next 12 months, let's recount some of the great – and not so great – moments on the local culinary scene.

In the past year, I was served delicious food numerous times, incredible food on several occasions and, yes, rancid food at least twice. I encountered innovation, a bit of risk-taking (serving rancid food doesn't count) and, for better or worse, I saw many menus that looked like many other menus. I encountered more good and great service than ever.

We saw food trucks continue to flourish, offering opportunities for enter- prising and creative chefs to do their thing without the burden of super-serious debt. We saw at least four food truck chefs build a following and then open brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Who benefits when we have more options and more competition?

You do.

Sacramento also took a stab at finally promoting itself as a farm-to-fork (or farm-to-table) capital, and I see more and more restaurants embracing the tenets of sustainability, seasonal cooking and using local ingredients.

Let's just make sure those ideals don't become an excuse not to have menus that are also dynamic, creative and unique.

If we want to know what's going to happen with restaurants in 2013, it's best to look at how we responded to what restaurants did in 2012. Here's some of what we remember, in no particular order.

Restaurant that really flexed its muscles: Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar has elevated its game in nearly every conceivable way, so much so that it must be considered a serious contender as the area's best fine-dining restaurant.

Executive chef Pajo Bruich and pastry chef Edward Martinez are producing modernist, eye-popping, mouthwatering and intellectually stimulating dishes, the quality of which could rival many highly touted Michelin-rated restaurants in San Francisco or New York.

Sommelier Matthew Lewis brings it all together with his profound way with wine.

Pizza and more pizza: Sacramento diners need to realize that in recent years we have become a seriously good pizza town.

But when I set out to rank the best of the best, I literally bit off more than I could chew. In the end, Masullo topped my list, followed closely by Hot Italian, OneSpeed, Spataro, Matteo's and Pizza Rock.

There are more good and great pizzas out there. Stay tuned for a supplemental list coming early in 2013.

Coffee and more coffee: Anyone who checks my Twitter feed knows I love coffee and obsess over the pursuit of perfect coffee.

Sacramento is now a national-caliber coffee town. When I tackled a story and compiled my rankings of the best coffee, the only problem was the physical toll it took as I drank an espresso, cappuccino and traditional drip coffee at every coffee locale.

It wasn't the caffeine that blew me away – it was the acidity, the buildup of which left me more than a little queasy.

Farewell, foie gras: To produce foie gras, the impossibly luxurious duck and goose liver, the birds must be force-fed.

It isn't pretty.

And in 2012, California banned the sale of foie gras.

Hello pork belly: The most enterprising chefs around saw this decadent dish as a way to make foodies miss foie gras just a bit less. The best version I had was at Enotria, followed by Blackbird. Pork Belly Grub Shack, the funky and casual spot in Natomas, does all kinds of great things with it.

Bon chance, chef: Morgan Song, one of the area's great chefs and the owner of Ambience Restaurant in Carmichael, is moving on. For several years, Song wowed guests with his nouvelle French cuisine, presented in an artistic and precise way that was unrivaled locally until the emergence of Bruich in the past 18 months. In 2009, after numerous meals there, I listed it as my favorite fine-dining experience. The chef plans to close sometime in January and relocate in the Bay Area. Recommendation: Stop in for one last great prix fixe dinner.

Perfect little joint: Juno's Kitchen in east Sacramento continues to combine a neighborhood vibe, casual cuisine and superior cooking to cement its status as a must-visit place for foodies. Keep up the good work, chef Mark Helms and crew. If it means anything, that's where I ate on my birthday (rock shrimp mac 'n' cheese, baby).

Most ambitious chef: Aimal Formoli. If you equate ambition with determination, it's hard to top what the owner-chef at Formoli's Bistro is doing.

He routinely drives to a pristine biodynamic garden run by Grgich Hills Estate winery in the Napa Valley. The chef picks the produce and designs his menu based on what looks best. The results often are amazing.

Chef on a hot streak: Adam Pechal, owner of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en, was recently tapped to cook a vegan meal for Bill Clinton when the former president – and one-time notorious overeater – was in town for a speaking engagement.

We're told Clinton raved about Pechal's spinach pasta with golden cauliflower, roasted peppers, cippolini onions, arugula and toasted almonds. And yes, the produce came from Sacramento's Feeding Crane Farms.

Watch for Pechal to showcase his talent before a national audience in January on ABC's "The Taste," hosted by Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson. We're certain he'll fair much better than Tyler Stone, the self-described chef to the stars who flamed out on "Top Chef" faster than you can say "Dude has absolutely no knife skills."

Most efficient kitchen: Harry's Cafe. OK, so it's not trying to be the next French Laundry, but Harry's serves reliably good Asian cuisine (and American breakfasts) in a tiny, diner-style setting.

Everything on the vast menu is good. But the most impressive thing is the no-nonsense efficiency. Last time we were there for breakfast, it was seven minutes from the time we ordered until our excellent waffles and omelet hit the table. Impressive.

Number of pounds I gained this year: Zero. In a job that requires that I eat pork belly, prime rib, lamb chops, pizza of all kinds, gourmet burgers, heart-stopping heavy sauces, cheese and charcuterie plates followed by copious glasses of wine and plenty of desserts, how do I avoid packing on the pounds?

I really, really watch what I eat.

And I "earn" my meals, meaning that I burn calories before I consume more of them. That breakfast at Harry's comes only after significant other Lynn does a long, hard run and I do a strenuous workout of some kind. It makes the food taste better, too.

Where I eat when I'm off duty: The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. My ongoing appreciation for this grocery store begins with trust – I believe in its mission to sell food that is ethical, healthy and as local as possible.

I will eat anything it serves at the dinner buffet and salad bar. And it's the only place where I regularly get to enjoy nutritious kale and collard greens. I also like to stop by Magpie, Juno's, Sampino's, Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates and Devine Gelateria as much as possible.

Biggest ordering mistake: Months ago, I had the bright idea to compile a list of the best spicy-hot dishes in town. So I started at Shoki Ramen House. I ordered my usual "extra hot" tan tan men.

But I wanted to compare it to the "super hot," so I got a bowl of that, too. I winced, I wept, I slurped, I slumped until I felt my lips had suffered second-degree burns.

That story? Um, it's still on hold.

Best coffeehouse: There are too many great ones to pick just one. With Temple, Broadacre, Chocolate Fish, Old Soul and Insight leading the way, our coffee scene these days is amazingly good. Remember the days when big, bad Starbucks was putting local coffee shops out of business? These new indie places demolish Starbucks with high-quality coffee and one-of-a-kind settings.

Least-favorite thing about these places: Open laptops and blank stares. I wish great coffee and good conversation would come back in fashion. I interviewed someone recently at Old Soul at the Weatherstone and felt like everyone was listening. There were no other conversations. Coffee shops should be filled with ideas, banter, laughter.

Close your laptops, strike up a conversation, and maybe someone will actually find you interesting.

You'll definitely make our coffee shops better.

Your lips are moving, but ... : While coffee shops are often too hush-hush, many restaurants have yet to figure out the right balance between being lively and seeming overbearing.

Noise creates excitement. Too much noise is intrusive. Good acoustics allow for conversations to happen at the table without making the restaurant seem silent.

Worse than a noisy restaurant: One that's too quiet. That was part of the problem at Ambience. It didn't seem fun enough, despite the amazing food and quality service. Places that get the balance just right – Mulvaney's, Ella, de Vere's Irish Pub, Tucos Wine Bar in Davis – are an inspiration.

A chef who can write: David Van Buskirk of Cafe Luna in Placerville not only does a very good job in the kitchen, he's a thoughtful and often hilarious writer. I look forward to his monthly "Rants and Raves" newsletter more than any other restaurant-related material. Subscribe at www.cafelunatics.blogspot .com.

Farm on a mission: Sacramento has several small farms that provide restaurants with great produce. In the past year, the new Feeding Crane Farms in the Natomas area of Sacramento has not only grown tremendous organic food, it has shown it has an admirable long-term vision.

The farm recently bought Steel Magnolia Commercial Kitchen (to be renamed Lulu's Kitchen) with plans to launch a line of food products. It also wants to encourage and promote small food companies that are striving to do great things.

Adios to a once-favorite cuisine: OK, so I won't actually stop eating Thai food. I really love the vibrant flavors and colors of this kind of cooking.

But I'm also frustrated by the sameness of the Thai restaurants in the area. Is there a rule that you can't be innovative and edgy and still be a Thai restaurant?

We have many good places but no great ones. Is anyone going to raise the bar for Thai food?

Favorite food photo: I had the pleasure of dining with Paul Somerhausen, head of Sacramento Epicureans, at Macau Cafe.

He's all about the adventurous pursuit of eating good food. But did we take it too far when we ordered the chicken – the entire chicken? On the plate was a bird with feet, legs and, yes, the entire head with beak intact. Somerhausen was happy to pose for my photo, smiling and holding up the head.

Annoying new restaurant habit: Food photos. Yes, I'm guilty. But I have to actually remember what I've eaten. At least I don't use a flash. And I don't text at the table.

Still, the flurry of camera work has gotten out of hand. Some high-end restaurants in New York have banned tableside snapshots. Problem is, we have more and more photo-worthy food in Sacramento these days.