Carla Meyer

Pushkin’s Restaurant: Heartiness without heaviness (or gluten) for brunch in midtown

A new Pushkin's for midtown Sacramento

Owners Danny and Olga Turner talk about opening Pushkin's on Capitol Avenue, an evolution of their 29th Street Pushkin's Bakery. The new spot will serve brunch all day. (Video by Blair Anthony Robertson)
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Owners Danny and Olga Turner talk about opening Pushkin's on Capitol Avenue, an evolution of their 29th Street Pushkin's Bakery. The new spot will serve brunch all day. (Video by Blair Anthony Robertson)

Relief washes over you after a first meal at Pushkin’s Restaurant, the 4-month-old breakfast and lunch cafe from the couple behind Sacramento’s popular Pushkin’s gluten-free bakery.

The gluten- and often also dairy-free dishes are hearty without being heavy, thus eliminating the previously inevitable-seeming big-breakfast hangover. The one where you enter the restaurant eager and chipper, but exit wanting to rub your stomach and chew a toothpick, Boss Hog-style.

The relief also derives partly from how good the food tastes. I never ate Pushkin’s baked goods before I visited the restaurant, but I have eaten a lot of gluten-free cookies and muffins from elsewhere. There were about five instances out of 50 when I did not wish they instead had been gluten-full.

But Pushkin’s co-owner Olga Turner, who taught herself to make gluten- and dairy-free items because she did not find enough tasty options when dining out with her gluten- and dairy-allergic husband and business partner, Danny, shows a brilliant streak as a baker. The restaurant’s “basket of baked goods” holds treasures: moist banana bread, moister coffee cake – with blueberries and walnut crumble – and a Pushkin’s signature, gooey “No Name,” or center of a cinnamon roll.

These treats, like all of Pushkin’s baked products, start with a special blend of sorghum, tapioca and rice flours and potato starch. Together, these ingredients help convince diners accustomed to wheat that nothing is missing. Even from waffles, whose airiness-to-denseness ratio Olga Turner has nailed.

The savory bun used for sandwiches at the new restaurant feels and tastes lighter than a gluten hamburger bun. But it distinguishes itself most with fresh flavor – that slightly sweet, yeasty taste one associates so closely with bread just out of the oven. Though this bun does not hold up as part of the Pushkin’s burger and fish sandwich, that might be a proportion issue.

Pushkin’s also offers the relief that really counts, to people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity who want high-quality dishes without having to cherry-pick through a menu or ask the server a million questions. Everything baked is gluten-free and made without butter or milk. Vegans also can breathe easier at Pushkin’s, which offers a separate menu for them.

Us? We had ham, chicken sausage, a burger with cheese and countless eggs during our visits, yet still left without feeling leaden. It’s important to note that Pushkin’s counts milk and butter as dairy but eggs as poultry. Eggs pop up a lot at this brunch spot, baked into that sandwich bun (but not in the other savory bread, a white-bread baguette) and on their own, and beautifully poached, in several dishes.

The whites were firm yet still fluffy and the yolks appropriately runny on top of our avocado toast, which came laden with chunky avocado enlivened by lime, dill and cilantro. Poached eggs added depth to the flavor of an excellent eggs Benedict; Olga Turner’s hollandaise sauce, made with egg, lemon and an olive oil-based vegan butter, satisfies without being overly rich.

Pushkin’s restaurant feels like a find, for its exceptionally fresh-tasting, preservative-eschewing food and drink – meats are nitrate-free and the stellar lemonade and orange juice come from citrus squeezed in house – and its location, set back from the street on Capitol near 18th Street in a new building (next to The Press). A walnut banquette running along a back wall, and a slab of redwood topping a communal table, warm up the interior’s clean, utilitarian design of concrete floors, white walls and open, stainless-steel-heavy kitchen.

Things get wonderfully eccentric in the bathroom, with its bold floral wallpaper and piped-in sound from an instructional video about ballet dancing. The late Julia Child and fuzzy-haired TV art instructor Bob Ross also have made voice appearances in the restroom. The sights and sounds helped distract from the sink being out in the hall. Olga Turner said the communal-sink setup, much like the community table, is meant to encourage interactions between guests. Although I made no meaningful connections while soaping up, the restroom-going experience was fun as a whole.

That unexpected adventure brought better results than the experiment my companions and I inadvertently conducted, in which we tested the wherewithal of Pushkin’s sandwich bun. The bread kept its character nicely in encompassing the scrambled egg, bacon, cheese and pesto sauce of Pushkin’s special breakfast sandwich. But the bottom slice sogged under the weight and moisture of an 8-ounce beef patty, cheese, lettuce and tomato in the burger and also under a generous serving of snapper in the Crescent City fish sandwich – both of which impressed otherwise. A bigger bun and less meat might help.

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Pushkin’s Lox plate features fish that has been cured for 24 hours. Manny Crisostomo mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Though never put to the same tests as the sandwich bun, Pushkin’s baguette shows admirable versatility, ably serving as a solid but moisture-absorbing Benedict base and baking up nicely into crostini to accompany a plate with lox, tomato, caper and a perfectly hard-boiled egg. But the lox itself, cured for 24 hours so that it is still plenty pliant and not too salty, was the star of that show, its seafood flavor readily evident without being fishy.

The tomato soup served in combination with a grilled-cheese sandwich contains plenty of red-pepper-flake punch, and the Not Your Mama’s Chicken Soup holds slices of jalapeño added, along with cilantro, avocado and red onion, to a broth of chicken and potato, just before the bowl is served. Both comfort-with-a-spark menu items are winners.

Only the oily, too-soft hash browns seemed truly amiss on our visits. They stole the glory from the garlic-forward tofu of the scrambled-tofu plate – the only vegan dish we tried.

When I said earlier that Pushkin’s feels like a find, I should have qualified that it already has been found by scores of people. The place was packed when we visited at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday. On weekends, there is an hourlong-plus wait for a table – a Bacon & Butter- and Orphan-esque phenomenon that speaks to how few gourmet breakfast spots there are in Sacramento.

I was not knocked out by any item at Pushkin’s the way I have been by dishes at Bacon & Butter and Orphan. But I also did not try either of those places four months into its run. For a self-taught chef who never ran a restaurant kitchen before, Olga Turner is doing a bang-up job.

Pushkin’s Restaurant

1813 Capitol Ave., Sacramento. 916-823-5520, pushkinskitchen.com

Hours: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Beverage options: Espresso drinks, fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices. Compact list of sparkling, red and white wines.

Vegetarian-friendly: Extremely, and vegan-friendly.

Gluten-free options: Everything is gluten-free.

Noise levels: Moderate to high. The interior is full of hard surfaces, and there is plenty of noise even when the place is half- or three-quarters full.

Ambiance: The design is clean, modern and welcoming. The bathrooms are memorable for their lively wallpaper, eccentric soundtrack and communal sink.

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The design is clean, modern and welcoming at Pushkin’s Restaurant in midtown Sacramento. Manny Crisostomo mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Overall

The food is hearty without being heavy, the atmosphere welcoming and service is mostly on the ball.

Food

Co-owner Olga Turner, who taught herself gluten-free baking before starting the popular Pushkin’s bakery on 29th Street, does wonders without wheat. Sweet baked goods are moist and filling, and more savory dishes satisfy as well. The kitchen staff cooks eggs beautifully. A few items were overly salty, and the hash browns oily and mushy, but Turner, who never has run a restaurant kitchen before, shows great promise.

Service

Friendly and efficient in most instances. On a few occasions, staff members either did not answer a question or gave us an incorrect answer to a question.

Value

Servings are substantial, and most dishes run $10-$13 – not Denny’s cheap, but reasonable for midtown Sacramento.

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