Carla Meyer

Dining review: Sacramento's Waterboy is very good; it should dare to be great

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

For better or worse, there are a number of misconceptions about The Waterboy, a prominent and much-admired midtown restaurant that just turned 15.

The restaurant has evolved into a fine-dining, special occasion restaurant, which is far different than owner-chef Rick Mahan's original vision.

How did that happen? And is it necessarily a bad thing that it did?

Let's start with the following list of statements, only one if which is not true. See if you can find it.

1. The Waterboy is one of the best restaurants in the city.

2. Hometown boy Mahan, highly skilled and passionate as ever, may go down as one of the great figures in local restaurant history.

3. The Waterboy set out to be sort of a bohemian destination – something fun, edgy and hip, with a pinch of French flair and a dash of Italian charisma. On many nights, the room is filled with people who take the restaurant too seriously. Some of those people work there.

4. The cooking, with a couple of exceptions, is at a very high level, and the ingredients are the finest available.

5. There is an elegance to simplicity. Too much simplicity and elegance, however, is like watching the PBS News Hour with the volume turned down.

6. The overall "design" of the room – the clashing lines, the décor, the flow – is about as elegant and simple as a Bill Cosby sweater. It is neither funky nor eclectic – it's a tad sloppy.

7. We're glad that a chef of Mahan's caliber attracts such a loyal following and that his success means he will not be pushing himself to be more dynamic, edgier and inventive with his food.

OK, the first six statements, arguably, are true, while the seventh is a fib. In fact, it's the core of my argument that The Waterboy is a very good restaurant that could be – and should be – a great restaurant.

With Mahan's skill, style, tenacity, attention to detail and ambition, The Waterboy could continue to offer superb food without being so predictable about it. It could be funkier, more fun – more Rick Mahan.

When I suggested to Mahan recently that he may have ceded control of his original concept for The Waterboy to his clientele, he insisted he had not. And yet, the restaurant may be a victim of its own success. Now, it is stodgy more than it is bohemian, self-serious more than it is fun.

Mahan says he has thought about retooling or reinventing the place from time to time. But it's hard to transform The Waterboy when the seats are filled nearly every night and the customers like things the way they are. In the first couple of years of the restaurant's existence, folks decided The Waterboy was a fine-dining, special occasion restaurant – a destination, a big deal. It wasn't a place to hang out, hobnob with artists or start an argument about how you were going to change the world.

Maybe the food was too good for that – too precise and too serious and, in the end, too delicious to be taken lightly. So the food got even more serious and so did the prices, even though The Waterboy still is not necessarily an expensive restaurant, with many of the entrees priced in the low to mid-20s.

In those early days, Mahan was going to rely on daily inspiration for the menu, just as Berkeley's Chez Panisse did. What was good at the farms that day and how could the kitchen showcase it? It would be done naturally and without much fuss – as simple as possible, but no simpler, as Einstein once stated.

The first part of the idea to fall through was the menu. Mahan the chef wanted to change it daily, but Mahan the restaurateur soon realized Sacramentans wouldn't support that. So he began changing it monthly. It is often a beautifully composed menu – telling a simple story about the seasons and always with a sense of place.

The menu almost always includes sweetbreads, and the sweetbreads always are cooked with such precision that they turn out with that telltale tenderness and warmth of flavors that can inspire a lifelong obsession. The most recent sweetbreads we encountered at The Waterboy were sautéed simply and served with a crisp and rich pork belly, lemon, capers and mushrooms. If The Waterboy could lighten up a smidge, I would have eaten these with my fingers and then wiped the plate with a piece of bread.

The extra-thick pork chop we ordered recently is the best we have had in Sacramento. Big, tender and juicy, it had a simple balsamic and herb jus, served with grilled peaches that were smoky and sweet, deceptively divine braised endive (from Rio Vista, the only place that grows them on this continent) and gratin potatoes that could not possibly be better – firm but not too firm, tasty but not too tasty.

If I were to find fault with Mahan, it would be that he doesn't take chances and that his dishes are not more original. They are traditional dishes, done with classic technique and the best ingredients.

Many of the dishes we have had here are the best of their kind in the city. Some, like the pan-seared scallops, could not be better prepared by any restaurant anywhere. Same goes for those gratin potatoes.

Only a few menu items fell short of excellent – the braised pork shoulder (with clams) was tender enough but the meat was noticeably dry. The hamburger is potentially great – except it is so loaded with other flavors you cannot actually taste the meat.

The lasagna verde with rabbit we had at a special fixed-price pasta-inspired "Third Thursday" dinner was not nearly firm enough and had a texture we can only describe as mushy; the best component on that plate was the house-made bacon, the firmness of which highlighted the droopiness of the lasagna's filling; on the flip side, the "rice pudding" dessert that night was actually made of carnaroli risotto, a pasta instead of a rice (get it?), but it was much too firm to make sense.

To be fair to the pastry chef, the sweet potato pie we had on another visit was excellent, and the pumpkin roulade was one of the finer desserts we've had in memory, a dreamy mix of spicy cake enveloping a creamy center that swept us away.

Overall, the cooking at The Waterboy is like that – top-notch and consistent. But are there landmark dishes? By that I mean recipes and flourishes that you can get there and only there. These don't have to be so-called signature dishes that hang around on the menu forever. What we'd like to see are occasional surprises – an element of risk and reward that elevates the dining experience beyond the tried and true.

If you were to read through the menus from time to time, you would think they were designed by someone who could lighten up a bit and not be so careful, so calculating.

Further, for a place that set out to be fun and lively, we wonder why The Waterboy's service sometimes comes off as too reserved, too stiff and not nearly fun enough. The service here is good – but not as good as we've seen in years past and not as good as it could be.

A place like Formoli's, for example, has taken bistro service to new heights, finding the balance of professionalism and playfulness that becomes part of the entertainment experience. The contrast with The Waterboy is stark, and it shouldn't be.

And if a place does want its staff to be serious, even learned, wouldn't they like the details to come across to the customers in a more engaging way?

Some of the descriptions about the menu were little more than a listing of ingredients, rather than the results produced by precise cooking. The explanations we sometimes received about the wine were pedestrian and impersonal, coming off as practically canned. We had to find out for ourselves that the Westwood Family barbera, at $9 a glass, was a revelation for its intensity, balance and subtle smokiness. We only wish our server had made it sound half that good.

The frustrated architect in me can only be distracted by the room. There are too many lines in too many places that don't offer a unifying statement. The more one looks at it, the more disjointed it appears. If someone could clear out the room and find an overall theme and flow that works rather than a hodgepodge that may or may not be masquerading as "eclectic," the ambience would make more sense.

And those strappy rattan-ish chairs? I'm going to be charitable and call them funky, if not bohemian.

In the end, you go to The Waterboy for the food and because you admire Mahan's skill.

Consistent and excellent as it usually is, The Waterboy could improve only by being more dynamic, inventive and, in the best of ways, inconsistent.

Mahan the chef is certainly up to the challenge. But is Mahan the restaurateur?

The Waterboy

2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento

(916) 498-9891

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

Full bar? Yes.

Takeout? Not recommended.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Overall 3 1/2 stars (very good)

When it opened in 1996, The Waterboy struggled to create an identity that clicked. It eventually evolved into a special-occasion restaurant that is much different from the original, more casual concept. Nevertheless, the food is always first-rate, the service is solid and the experience is among the most consistent in the city.

Food 3 1/2 stars (very good)

In the spirit of a spunky bistro, the menu is small and nimble. Owner-chef Rick Mahan changes it monthly. The cooking and the way the food is seasoned are always precise. The cuisine evokes the best traditions of northern Italy and southern France. While the dishes are based on classic techniques, more inventiveness and edginess just might show a new – and welcome – side of this beloved chef.

Service 3 stars (good)

The first question would be: Why so serious? I thought I had stopped at a midtown bistro but got that poker-faced formality that sucks the fun out of the place. While some of the servers are excellent, others drag down this rating by giving descriptions of the food and wine that are neither expressive nor informative enough. The attentiveness, however, is very good here.

Ambience 2 stars (fair)

The closer you look, the more cross-eyed you're liable to become. The big windows are the biggest plus and it's best to look outward. There are lots of things going on in the room and much up it is awkward, clumsy and, in the case of the furniture, bordering on ghastly.

Value 3 stars (good)

The prices are not as high as many would expect, given The Waterboy's rep as a dining destination. Compared to the top places in town, this would be considered affordable, with many entrees in the low to mid-20s and nothing topping the magic $30 mark. Portions are ample, but the real value is in the cooking and the undeniable quality of the ingredients.