The Bay Area is not for everyone. Just ask the thousands of transplants who have relocated to charming foothills towns like Auburn, Nevada City and Placerville.
These folks tend to never look back, even if they miss the world-class food and wine scene in and around San Francisco.
I've found at least one restaurant in Auburn that may help ease such hunger pangs for sophisticated yet casual fine dining.
The menu is cleverly eclectic, the cooking is largely sound, the room is warm and charming (with original wood floors dating back more than a century, and hints of Polynesian-flavored décor) and it has a palapa bar outside. And there's at least one excellent server, Coreen, who could be a star at any Michelin-rated restaurant in the City by the Bay. She understood the menu in great detail, believed in the mission of the restaurant and handled our table with attention to detail and a touch of charm.
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Monkey Cat Restaurant was part of Jim and Trish Bril's exit strategy from the Bay Area. Jim ran the well- regarded Fior d'Italia restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach for 25 years. But he eventually became overwhelmed by some of the less-than-charming facets of big-city living – namely traffic and more traffic. I know what he means – I once spent an hour scouring for a parking spot in North Beach so we could visit our favorite coffee shop, only to give up in exasperation and drive away.
Bril said he bought Monkey Cat nearly seven years ago, figuring he was too young to retire but too old to be hired by someone. This would be a job and a way of life, albeit with the volume and intensity dialed back considerably.
The Brils inherited the eccentric name from the previous owners and set about creating a restaurant that boasted the caliber of fine dining they were used to in San Francisco. Parking? We nabbed a spot right out front.
Monkey Cat is certainly worth a visit, whether you're a local looking for a place to dine, someone passing through on the way to Lake Tahoe or you simply want to make a pleasant little road trip from Sacramento.
What's more, Monkey Cat considers itself exceptionally dog-friendly. Once we noticed that claim on the restaurant's website, we returned with one of our three dogs and dined on the side patio with Abbey, who slept through most of the experience. With lush shrubbery shielding the patio from the sidewalk and a tuckered-out dog stretched out at our feet, Auburn was beginning to feel more like Carmel, where canines are often afforded greater stature than their human companions.
Moments after we placed our order on the patio, our server returned with a bowl of water for Abbey, who isn't averse to a good craft beer every now and then.
Jim Bril said the patio has its many regulars, including a guy who brings his cat on a leash, and another customer who shows up with two behemoth – and slobbering – Newfoundlands.
Beyond the kindnesses shown to canines, there is plenty to admire about Monkey Cat, including a range of prices on the menu that allows for anything from budget noshing to high-end fine dining. The build-your-own pasta, for instance, is only $10. When we saw that, we thought we would try it as a starter prior to our main entree, only to be told by our server that the portion was more than enough for a full meal; it was, indeed.
We "built" our pasta with seasonal vegetables (green beans, red bell peppers and onions), penne pasta and a pesto cream sauce. The vegetables were bright and fresh and perfectly cooked, and the pasta was appropriately al dente, but the subtle sauce bordered on bland, with nary a hint of basil flavor. It was a good dish that could have been better with a little more oomph to the sauce.
We had far better luck with the excellent scallop appetizer ($12), pan-seared and served with a delicious blackened corn salsa and thick sesame potato cake. It was a real winner given the pleasant combination of the mild scallops with the spicy salsa.
The three-course prix fixe dinner for $20 is an excellent option and a affordable deal. During one visit, we chose the chicken Parmesan, which includes two large breasts with a bright, tangy marinara. It came with a green salad and an appealing antipasto plate – olives, a variety of thinly sliced charcuterie and cheeses.
The flatiron steak ($22), cooked medium-rare, came with caramelized shallots and steak fries, with a dollop of gorgonzola chive butter plunked atop the beef just in case you're trying to get those cholesterol numbers up in a hurry.
This is a cut of beef from the shoulder area, often heavily marbled and loaded with flavor. We are seeing it more and more at upscale eateries because the price tends to be lower than more-common cuts like a rib-eye or New York strip. In the hands of a highly skilled chef, this is a great chance to show off. I'm reminded of an exceptional "bavette" steak at Ravenous Cafe, for instance, that was a revelation – tender and bursting with the best kind of beefy flavor.
This entree, however, reminded me why those old reliable cuts are, well, more reliable. Our steak in question was tender and juicy, but the flavor had a hint of liver on the finish. When I later checked with a source in the meat industry, he told me such flavor sometimes comes out with this cut – but he suggested I think of it as "earthy" rather than "livery." OK. I wished this steak tasted less earthy.
French onion soup is hard for me to pass up when it's on a menu. There's really no such thing as a bad French onion soup – you're pretty much guaranteed some kind of success simply by melting cheese, cooking the onions until they're limp and velvety, and heating the broth. But the flavor profile of this popular soup is wide-ranging, from robust and beefy to mild and sweet. This version landed on the sweet side, reminding me of the French onion soup Matt Woolston sometimes serves at the Supper Club.
The salmon dish was superb – mostly because of the candied almonds sprinkled over the top, giving a nice crunch and surprising kick of sweetness to the sun-dried apricot cream sauce. The accompanying rice was a boring way to fill out the plate, though the bright green beans made up for it.
Finally, the osso buco entree ($18) may illustrate what is good about Monkey Cat – and what could be better. This was quite an inventive dish, veering sharply from the traditional veal shanks braised in olive oil, white wine, stock, tomatoes, garlic and, among other things, anchovies.
The Monkey Cat kitchen took this Italian mainstay and gave it an exotic Spanish twist, using pork instead, braising it in a chipotle tomato sauce. It is served with Ortega chili and an otherwise pleasant black bean polenta.
When it arrived at the table, it was impressive – big and bold and robust, the steam rising from the broth. But I could tell by the aroma that this wasn't going to be as bold as it looked.
This was too tame, the flavors too dull – great expectations followed by waiting for the spicy kick to come. It never did. Those two Newfoundlands that visit the patio? This wouldn't be the dish to trigger those drooling fits.
While the large chunks of pork were exceptionally tender, the dish didn't come together and provide that "wow" factor it really needed. The components on the plate proved overwhelming. The polenta would have been fine by itself, but in a broth served with a half-pound of pork, it left me feeling bloated before I was halfway finished.
In no time, I was as sleepy as the dog lying at my feet.
The wine selection at Monkey Cat champions the best of the emerging wine industry in the area, with 17 local wineries included on the list. It's heavy on zinfandel and syrah, two varieties the Auburn area tends to produce with much success. Our bottle of zinfandel from Dono dal Cielo in nearby Newcastle was full-bodied, fruit-forward and spicy.
Overall, our visits to Monkey Cat were a success, the highlights being an excellent server, a great room with a sense of history and warmth, and cooking that, while largely successful, showed there is the potential to be even better.