Carla Meyer

At Saddle Rock, the food wobbles but does not fall and the cocktails always fly

Cardini Caesar with Chicken at Saddle Rock on Monday October 31, 2016 in Sacramento.
Cardini Caesar with Chicken at Saddle Rock on Monday October 31, 2016 in Sacramento. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Midtown Sacramento restaurant Saddle Rock draws its name and culinary inspiration from a pioneer Sacramento restaurant that opened in 1849 on Second Street, serving miners and merchants before California officially became a state.

Our dining experience at the new Saddle Rock, which opened three months ago in the former Capital Dime space on L Street, at times mimicked the mercurial nature of the Gold Rush era. Some dishes were tasty enough to inspire cries of “Eureka!” yet a few others were so poorly executed that dinner nearly went bust. But today, as in frontier times, tarts and booze help smooth the rougher edges.

The tart in question has a heart of apple, caramel and butter, and sits on a delicate puff pastry. Apple-cider sauce pings the dessert’s sweetness before whipped, sugar-infused cream cheese draws all the flavors together.

This treat – exiting the menu shortly in a seasonal switch to a nearly-as-delicious sweet-potato cake – highlights the baking prowess of Saddle Rock head chef Matt Masera, who spent years as a pastry chef before heading up the kitchen at K Street vegetarian favorite Mother and co-leading, for a time, the crew at meaty sister restaurant Empress Tavern.

Masera, who researched the old Saddle Rock in planning his menu, said the original spot stood out amid the plentiful saloons and gambling houses of its day by serving sit-down dinners. Though considered more of a diner in the latter part of its 100-years-plus run, the 19th-century Saddle Rock was “a nice restaurant,” Masera said, that by the turn of the next century likely reflected the influence of chefs who had been trained in classic French techniques before coming west.

It is not inconceivable that desserts as accomplished as Masera’s were served at the old Saddle Rock. Or that Masera’s winter-perfect white bean cassoulet – accompanied by a double-boned pork chop that is brined, grilled and finished in the oven in a pan of butter that seals in juices and caramelizes the exterior – could have been an entree the Second Street restaurant was capable of making.

Not likely, mind you, in salt-pork times. But 49ers definitely ate pork and beans, and Masera said his pork chop/cassoulet dish can be viewed as his rendition of that more basic dish, just as his hot cakes, the ingredients of which shift seasonally, suggest nightly meals made by miners armed with rations of flour and few cooking skills. We were impressed by Masera’s fluffy yet weighty pumpkin hot cakes, which came with pumpkin sautéed in butter and flavor-counterbalancing pickled mustard seeds.

But apart from Masera’s menu, portraits of Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin (reported patrons of the old Saddle Rock) and wood sculptures of a pheasant and frog (from the original restaurant’s logo), the new, concrete-floored Saddle Rock looks more midcentury modern than Ye Olde. Touches such as star-shaped lights represent the design leanings of restaurateur Chris Jarosz, of whose Broderick empire Saddle Rock is a part.

Old-fashioned leather sofas that once occupied part of the lounge area have made way for high-top tables, to better accommodate patrons who want to watch sports on a nearby TV, Saddle Rock general manager Mike Williams said. Saddle Rock never wanted to be rooted in the Gold Rush, he said, but rather draw from different periods of the original Saddle Rock’s long run.

This philosophy gives the place a lot of leeway but not much identity. Airy by day and intimately lit by night, with attentive service that starts with the amiable Williams, Saddle Rock is a welcoming place. But it’s not an especially warm one, in part because of its disjointed interior.

Jarosz added a parklet along L Street. But the setup inside remains as awkward as it was when the space opened as L Wine Lounge, with a bar to the right of the entrance, large lounge area to the left, and behind that an elevated dining area, accessed by stairs, that in turn opens up to patio dining. We had dinner in that indoor dining room, on a rainy night when most other patrons were downstairs, and relatively far from us, in the bar. It felt isolating.

It did not help that this meal brought big culinary misses uncharacteristic of previous visits, when we sat at the bar. The biscuit in the “chicken ‘skin’ a biscuit” starter, which comes with fried poultry skin, tasted undercooked, as did gummy fried catfish nuggets. Masera’s signature brown-butter cookies, brought over from Mother, were doughy.

Though we had not loved everything we’d eaten up to this point – a soy-ginger sauce overpowered soba noodles in the chop suey, and the salmon sandwich and accompanying fries flirted heavily with overseasoning – every dish had maintained a base line of quality.

Since those more consistent meals happened at the bar, we will stick to sitting there from now on. It’s the best spot in the house anyway, with its lovely quartz bar top and nearby, large accordion windows that can be opened up to the sidewalk on warmer days. The bartending staff – we caught the names of Naomi and Michael, but not others – is composed of highly engaged students of their craft.

Plus, there’s whiskey at the bar. And whiskey, unlike Saddle Rock’s decor, provides a clear through line from 1849 to now. It can be ordered straight up or in the excellent Dirty Means cocktail, which holds bourbon infused with untreated leather, along with chocolate, Thai chili, peanut oil and a touch of edible gold glitter. I could not taste the leather or glitter but detected notes of earthiness amid the heat, sweetness and alcohol bite of this shimmering drink.

Every craft cocktail we tried – from the refreshing, punchlike Argonaut, with vodka and passion fruit, to the holiday spirit-inducing Grand Celebration, with rum, frothy egg white and cinnamon, were knockouts. Saddle Rock’s cocktail list, developed by since-departed beverage director Karina Martinez, ranks among the best in town.

At its finest, Saddle Rock’s food matches the bold-yet-balanced achievements of its cocktails. Masera’s burger made it onto The Bee’s recent favorites list because it is delicious and unlike anyone else’s. Masera cooks Brie, white cheddar and bacon inside the patty, with each added flavor asserting itself at different moments.

Masera worked alongside Mother and Empress chef/co-owner Michael Thiemann for years, and like Thiemann leans toward strong flavors – from salty to smoky to bright to bitter – that wow individually before settling into a whole. A few of the “Eureka!” moments mentioned earlier came while eating a cauliflower chowder and Cardini Caesar salads at Saddle Rock – the best dishes I had tasted anywhere in weeks.

The chowder arrives with an assortment of solid carrot, parsnip, pearl onion, radish, potato and cauliflower – all of which have been blanched and drizzled with smoked olive oil – off to one side. The server then pours out a cauliflower puree to which a touch of vinegar has added noticeable snap. Though the ingredients likely should be mixed together, we liked individual elements so much that we ate this chowder more chip-and-dip style, with fingers instead of spoons.

The $14 lunch Caesar with chicken (a $10 vegetarian version appears on the dinner menu) holds crisp romaine hearts and intensely flavored chunks of chicken thigh dredged in buttermilk, hot sauce and fish sauce and covered in flour with paprika and cayenne before hitting the fryer. Caramelized baby carrots add a touch of sweetness before a Caesar dressing, placed at the bottom of the bowl and subbing Castelvetrano olives for anchovies, brings home the salt and acidity.

It is a salad so (literally) hearty that it would have satisfied the hungriest miners ever to come down off the mountain for a meal at the old Saddle Rock. Or at least those concerned with skirting scurvy.

Saddle Rock

1801 L St., suite 50, Sacramento, www.saddlerockrestaurant.com, 916-706-2011

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight (food until 9) Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (food until 10) Friday-Saturday.

Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Compact list of sparkling, red and white wines. Scrimshaw, Sactown Union Centennial Falcon and Oak Park Citra beers on tap. Bottled beer.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise level: Moderate.

Ambiance: Airy by day and intimately lit by night, Saddle Rock is also oddly configured, with 120 seats spread over a front parklet, bar area, indoor dining room and patio dining area beyond that. The best spot is at the bar, which has a lively vibe.

Overall

The lows of our dining experiences went pretty low but were not as plentiful or powerful as the highs. The craft cocktails were flawless, and prices reasonable for what you get.

Food

Chef Matt Masera’s considerable gifts show in his apple tart, pumpkin hot cakes, cauliflower chowder, baked oysters, grilled pork chop with white bean cassoulet and Caesar salad with chicken. The chop suey tasted overseasoned, however, and on one visit, the biscuits, cookies and catfish nuggets all seemed undercooked.

Service

Solid.

Value

Cocktails are reasonably priced at $9, as are Saddle Rock’s entrees, considering the level of culinary skill involved. The $24 pork chop and white-bean cassoulet in particular seems well-priced. And some other prices are now lower than they were: The burger, with fries, is now $16 rather than $18.

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