Standing on the covered boardwalk in Old Sacramento as rain pelted the cobblestones of Front Street one evening, we began to talk about what just happened, why our dinner at Café Americain seemed so appealing.
Was it the cooking? Or was it the thinking behind the cooking? After all, we rarely run across such a creatively conceived and varied menu.
Caviar? I've tasted it around here only as a near-microscopic accompaniment on dishes at a couple of the area's best restaurants. Raw food in a fine dining setting? Vegan dishes? Organic filet mignon? An array of cooked vegetables wrapped in a semi-sweet pancakelike blini? Desserts that will make you wonder if you're at a restaurant or a New Age retreat? It's all here.
But when you start to get excited about a menu with such sweep – and then stop to think about the tools, the time and the amount of Type-A organizing it takes to pull it off – you might want to imagine a massive kitchen with a star chef and all kinds of aspiring assistants focused on very specific tasks, their ladles, tongs and tweezers at the ready.
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Yes, Café Americain is an inspiration. And yes, one could also conclude that it is trying to do too much with too little. It has no star chef and team of helpers, only an earnest owner with enthusiasm, some great ideas and little to no restaurant experience to pull it all together.
Though the experience of dining here could be smoother and more seamless, the overall ideas and execution in the kitchen made our visits a pleasure – with one glaring exception.
We enjoyed enough new and uncommon dishes to recommend this restaurant for those who enjoy adventurous dining that mixes mainstream cooking with alternative approaches. It's also a must for folks who want to dabble in the raw food movement.
Café Americain is an elegant and grand room with tall, heavy draperies, patterned wallpaper, period décor, large framed art prints and ornate crystal champagne glasses. It is, at its core, a caviar and champagne house, but its menu is large enough to bypass the caviar altogether if this delicacy is not your thing. The restaurant is in the process of upgrading its wine and champagne list. In the next couple of weeks, it expects to offer up to 300 different bottles.
This restaurant, in which a very expensive delicacy is eaten with a very expensive beverage, actually came to life because of the recession. Mike and Natalya Wahba, the husband-and-wife owners of the restaurant, both have real estate backgrounds. They also own the building in Old Sacramento.
When they lost their tenants due to the economic downturn, they began looking for ways to use the building. She wanted to open a restaurant. He wanted no part of that.
"He said, 'What do we know about restaurants?' " Natalya said. "I said, 'We cook every day, we always have large family gatherings and everybody is always happy.'"
That's the kind of discussion that leads to such a high failure rate in the restaurant business. But sometimes being an outsider brings a refreshing perspective – and that's what shines through at Café Americain. Mike, of course, relented, and Natalya had her restaurant, which opened Dec. 12, 2009.
But once the couple committed to the restaurant, what kind of place would it be? All they really knew was that Mike loved caviar and champagne, Natalya loved to cook, and they wanted to showcase raw food and the vegan way of eating without excluding those with a carnivorous bent. The owners also had no interest in being like everyone else.
Natalya is from Ukraine and Mike is from Egypt. They put their heads and palates together and were drawn to a mixed bag of exotic ingredients and flavors.
The delicious plate of scallops ($22), for instance, is flavored with a slightly spicy African awasi black bean sauce and served with mixed vegetables alongside the nutty and mild whole grain called quinoa.
We were also intrigued by the "vegetable pockets" as an appetizer. A blend of vegetables, cooked al dente, and then wrapped in a thin, spongy blini, it combined savory and sweet and creaminess all in one.
On our first visit, we were drawn to the seafood entrees. The wild swordfish ($19) is braised until tender and served with a spicy tomato sauce. It is an excellent fish for hearty meat eaters who like a firm, dense texture and mild flavor.
The sturgeon is also a meaty white fish like a chicken breast but creamier, thanks to its higher fat content. The fish is grilled simply after it is seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon and coriander – a nod to Mike's Egyptian influence.
On our second visit, we had mixed reactions to the raw food selections. The "raw" beets ravioli appetizer is prepared in a dehydrator, which softens the texture without, apparently, losing nutrients. Sliced thinly, the beets took the place of pasta in the ravioli with a "cheese" filling made with cashews that had been ground into a paste and a macadamia nut sauce. An endearingly odd and awkward little starter.
The raw "cheesecake" tart we had for dessert one night, however, didn't work. We've been raised and perhaps spoiled by crusts made with butter and then baked, so we reacted as typical mainstream eaters – we found it dry and bland. The cheese is actually made of cashew cream, the crust from crushed dates and almonds.
The other raw dessert worked better for our cooked-food palates. It's a raw chocolate lava cake and, even though there was no hot gooey lava, it was delicious in that health food store kind of way.
We don't believe the raw food movement has extended to the realm of fine steaks, but raw is what we got when we sliced into the filet mignon. It was woefully undercooked. We requested medium-rare and instead got a large filet seared on the outside with deep-red flesh on the inside. That's a very large mistake on a $30 item. Our observant and professional waiter picked up on the problem and took drinks off our bill to make up for it.
We also dabbled in the caviar, which is harvested in nearby Elverta by Sterling Caviar, a company that has developed an international reputation for exceptional quality. We had the "caviar sampler" ($22), which gives you a taste of three grade levels of caviar from Sterling – classic, royal and imperial.
All three grades were marginally different and the sampler is a good way for newcomers to hone in on this, preferably with a nice glass of champagne.
For caviar aficionados, delve into the more expansive offerings – 30 grams of classic ($80), royal ($90) or imperial ($100), served with blinis and crème fraîche.
So there you have it, a wide-ranging dining adventure tucked away in an unassuming building in Old Sacramento.
The thinking behind the food is admirable. But with such a dynamic menu, more sophistication would elevate some of the dishes.
The sauces could be more complex, with greater depth of flavor. Same with the cooking techniques, which are basic and don't necessarily show off the ingredients.
What we will remember most was that the restaurant was a pleasant surprise, a great diversion and a potentially excellent new addition to the fine dining scene.
1023 Front St., Old Sacramento
Hours: Lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday brunch.
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Very.
Takeout? Not recommended.
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (promising)
In addition to being the area's only caviar and champagne house, the broad and unique menu is the centerpiece of this potential standout in Old Sacramento. The room is elegant and old- fashioned, but the thinking behind the food is very progressive – from traditional favorites with a twist to vegetarian, vegan and raw food options.
Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
We liked the vegetables wrapped in a blini, the raw beets ravioli, the grilled sturgeon, the wild scallops and the braised swordfish. Maybe sticking to the sea is a good bet, as our filet mignon was sorely undercooked.
Service: 3 stars (good)
Very professional, meticulous and attentive. The two waiters we encountered were pros who knew the food and the wines, and were adept at answering questions.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
Tastefully appointed with chandeliers and fine art reproductions, the room is a real treat, like stepping back in time. There was an issue one night with noise from the speakeasy downstairs – the music was so loud that two upset diners bailed out of dinner.
Value: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The prices are in line with most fine dining spots, but Café Americain goes a step further by offering premium caviar. It's expensive, but for those in the know, it's worth the occasional splurge.
Noteworthy: The Sterling Caviar served at Café Americain is sought out by the finest restaurants. The caviar comes from white sturgeon raised in large above-ground tanks at three sites in the Sacramento area. Much of what is harvested is exported to Europe. According to Sterling's website, the heyday of caviar in the United States was in the late 1800s, when saloons served salty caviar as a snack food to encourage beer drinking, much like peanuts and popcorn today.