Carla Meyer

Sacramento’s Waterboy restaurant is still top of the list, 20 years in

Owner/chef Rick Mahan, shown on Nov. 14, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his midtown restaurant, The Waterboy.
Owner/chef Rick Mahan, shown on Nov. 14, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his midtown restaurant, The Waterboy. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Waterboy opened on Nov. 1, 1996, and thus has created two decades’ worth of great memories for Sacramentans who appreciate fine dining in an unpretentious setting.

My uniformly positive experiences at Waterboy only reach back to early 2005, when I moved to Sacramento from San Francisco. But they go back further symbolically.

Top-notch restaurants seemed to be around every corner in San Francisco. They were tucked away in neighborhoods, occupying bottom floors of Victorians, their store-front windows letting in sunlight or offering nice views of fog outside. “Organic” was a given, as was a bathroom that had to be accessed through the kitchen.

Though there was no exact equivalent in 2005 Sacramento, Waterboy came closest, and in some ways exceeded San Francisco expectations. Highly gifted yet low-key chef/owner Rick Mahan made San Francisco-level food in a space with genuine character. And the bathrooms could be reached through a regular hallway.

A corner spot, at Capitol Avenue and 20th Street, and floor-to-ceiling windows give Waterboy different looks at different times of day. At lunchtime, sunlight illuminates white tablecloths that serve as stop signs for a road-to-Morocco decor of rattan chairs and potted palms.

Though there is definite funkiness to this space, there is also abundant polish evident. You see it in the tablecloths, small vases holding fresh flowers, and in a smart use of space exemplified by a compact bar area and dining-room mirrors that promote an open feel.

Waterboy feels best after dark, its dim lighting and welcome hum of fellow diners’ voices giving it a vibe at once intimate and communal. What looks inviting when you drive by is even more so inside.

The only drawback to evening dining is it makes it harder to see the mural behind the bar, a pastiche of Roman statuary and pastoral scenes left over from the space’s previous occupant, Italian restaurant Americo’s. Mahan still claims to dislike this mural, which he kept because Americo’s customers insisted on it, and has continued to keep for two decades, although he partially obscured it with a shelf of liquor.

Mahan’s observance of tradition might not reach to the Roman Empire. But it goes back nearly four decades, to when Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and other Bay Area restaurants first popularized the idea of mixing fresh, local ingredients, and French and Italian recipes into California Cuisine.

Mahan, 56, said he has eaten at Chez Panisse 50 times over the years, starting when he was still a young apprentice cook at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. Alice Waters’ restaurant has had a profound impact on Waterboy’s food, he said.

All those San Francisco restaurants I loved also were spiritual descendants of Chez Panisse. This is why I embraced Waterboy in 2005, back before Ella, Grange, Mulvaney’s, Magpie Café and the original Hawks, in Granite Bay, had opened. Though I knew Biba by reputation, it seemed really fancy, and Esquire Grill too full of suits. Though the Kitchen already existed, my new Sacramento friends took one look at my years-old VW and decided it would be cruel to mention it.

So Waterboy was the one, when I craved a San Francisco experience. Only its tables were not packed as tightly as San Francisco restaurants’. And Waterboy’s exceptionally gracious staff never gave us the eye that indicated we had occupied a table too long.

And it wasn’t in the Bay Area but at Waterboy where we first tried sautéed veal sweetbreads, which seemed daring before the term “offal” became common. Poached, sliced and served with rich pan sauce made with shallots and marsala wine, Waterboy’s sweetbreads are as tender as you will get anywhere.

For the slightly less adventurous eater, there’s Waterboy’s best-in-town steak tartare. Capers and cornichons brighten, and egg yolk enriches, the hand-cut raw meat, which sits on crostini crisped at the edges but softened by olive oil in its middle.

Waterboy’s food falls into two categories: items you know you could not make at home, like a wonderful cassoulet of runner cannellini beans, duck confit and chicken sausage that are all cooked separately before being baked together; and those that seem simple enough to fool you momentarily into believing you could duplicate them.

Like the pepper-crusted bavette steak with potatoes gratin. That’s just meat, a starch and a vegetable, right? At Waterboy, it’s more like a masterful orchestration of flavors and textures.

It starts with Brussels sprouts crisped in a deep fryer, then drained and patted dry and put in a bowl with lemon, parsley, Parmesan and salt. The crisp theme continues with the steak’s outer layer, which is pressed with salt and pepper that seems to seal in the meat’s moisture and tenderness.

The textural showpiece of this dish is the potatoes gratin. Crisp on top, but then soft, with the potatoes offering a touch of textural resistance, Mahan’s version of one of the dining world’s most oft-muffed dishes is perfection. It’s something of a holy grail for those of us who grew up on the mushy, salty, child-palate satisfying instant version but had trouble finding a more nuanced adult equivalent. Most restaurant versions are lukewarm in spots and/or hold undercooked potatoes.

Mahan is open about ingredients and techniques involved in most of his dishes, but will not reveal the secrets behind his potatoes gratin. We know this: They are impeccably seasoned and hold this likelihood of being duplicated at home: 0.00.

Though my affection for Waterboy never wavered, I ate more often at the less expensive, more casual OneSpeed, the East Sacramento pizza place Mahan opened in 2009. I told anyone who would listen, before I was a restaurant critic, that OneSpeed had the best salads in town. Recent visits to Waterboy revealed the mother ship wins on that count.

Waterboy’s Caesar, with its well-balanced dressing of lemon juice, anchovy, Dijon, egg yolk and olive oil, remains a go-to. But its endive salad is a wonder.

One expects, when forking into endive, to encounter at least a modicum of bitterness. But Waterboy ditches the bitter core before cutting leaves lengthwise, and keeping the juiciest slivers. Endive and sliced apple soak up apple cider vinegar and olive oil. Walnut and Point Reyes Original Blue cheese add crunch and creaminess.

Though some items, like the Caesar and sweetbreads, never leave the menu, Mahan adds and subtracts dishes frequently, with input from chef de cuisine Adam Schulze. He runs kitchen service most days while Mahan, often carrying a wine glass and clad in shorts (for our interview on a chilly morning last week, Mahan winterized his shorts ensemble with a down vest), visits with guests in the dining room. But Mahan worked the kitchen on one of our visits, and said he always will when there is a menu change.

A Waterboy kitchen employee for 13 years, Schulze has applied the of-the-moment snout-to-tail whole-hog philosophy to Waterboy’s menu. He also makes a dynamite chicken liver mousse.

Waterboy’s menu, though never particularly trendy – Mahan always has avoided “drizzly things or foamy things,” he said – does not seem dated. Its primary attribute is being consumer friendly. You need not think too much about what to order: The menu’s size is manageable and wine selections as well as dishes have been vetted by Mahan.

Diner confidence multiplies when one consults veteran staff members. During a recent dinner, we asked server Marcella White, who has been with Waterboy since its beginning, to recommend a wine. She pointed out the Hahn Pinot Noir, which was deeper than a lot of pinot noirs and paired equally well with cassoulet and steak.

Such staff longevity in an industry where people change jobs as often as aprons speaks to Mahan’s integrity. So does a restaurant that, 20 years in, is still packed on a Thursday night. Especially when so much competition has arisen during the past decade.

In all candor, some of those newer places – Binchoyaki and Empress, for example – have turned my head; Waterboy is no longer the one. But it never drops out of the top five, no matter how many others enter the scene.

The Waterboy

2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, www.waterboyrestaurant.com, 916-498-9891

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday. 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday

Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Expansive list of California and European wines by the bottle. Compact list of wines by the glass. Three beers on draft and bottled beers..

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise levels: Mostly moderate, though a full house can create a noticeable (yet not unpleasant) spike.

Ambiance: Cozy without being at all down-home. A slightly funky space is offset by floor-to-ceiling windows and the polish of white table cloths and a highly professional staff.

Overall

High quality yet unpretentious, from food to staff to space.

Food

Waterboy makes the best salads and steak tartare in town, and its sweetbreads are rightfully legendary. Steak with potatoes gratin and Brussels sprouts offers a lesson in texture and flavor balance. The spicy, seafood-packed bouillabaisse we tried (replaced by cioppino on the current menu) was a knockout, as is the lunch-only hamburger, which made The Bee’s top 10 burger list. Cocktails and desserts do not reach the same level as savory dishes and wine, but they never drop below B level, either, and the cocktails do not skimp on alcohol.

Service

Flawless.

Value

Food prices are competitive with other high-end restaurants across town. Most entrees cost less than $30.

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