No one has ever declared West Sacramento a hotbed of cool restaurants and great sit-down meals.
For years, folks on that side of the river came over to the other side for most of their restaurant experiences.
But a new place called The Eatery just might start reversing those long- established traffic patterns.
These days, when I have a hankering for a great burger, some seriously fun French fries (topped with two eggs cooked sunny side up, melted cheddar, and buoyed with beef gravy), a plate of outstanding meatloaf, a thick and delicious pork chop, mussels done right, a perfect little steak, the best-tasting sautéed spinach in memory and a gourmet-style s'more for dessert, I'm leaving restaurant-rich Sacramento, crossing the river and making a beeline for this casual bistro-style joint that's doing pretty much everything the right way.
Aside from the chilly draft at the table near the front door, The Eatery is warm, cool, inviting, unpretentious, humble, serious, fun – seriously fun – and it's only getting better. It's a game-changer for West Sac and a temptation for food fans from beyond the borders of this often-overlooked or belittled enclave.
Let's start with the burger. I caught it on a day that I was so famished I was looking for something to eat about the size of a baby grand.
So I ordered the half-pound burger ($9) with a couple of upgrades: I doubled it, adding a second patty ($2) and that still sounded skimpy, so I asked for thick strips of bacon ($2) and some chipotle cheddar cheese ($1.50).
Don't get me wrong. The Eatery is not merely a Mecca for gluttons or a destination for the delirious. Smart, sensible people eat here, too.
The big burger and the high-quality add-ons simply show that this place doesn't take itself too seriously. If you want a meal that weighs in (according to my digital scale) at 1 pound, 6.5 ounces, go for it. If you desire a plate of fries big enough for a table of four to share, it's here, too, complete with yolks that ooze to delicious effect all over the plate.
But all this fun stuff – and overstuffed stuff – won't work if there isn't a foundation of quality behind the food.
The punch line is the serious cooking and the high-end ingredients. The beef in the burger is first-rate. You can taste it. The bun is big and sturdy yet tender, and it's made in-house. Those fries are cooked perfectly and full of flavor. Even the eggs are not just some goofball prank. The yolks are bright orange and look like they were delivered fresh from the farm. Even the extra-chocolatey s'more is not just a gimmick – it's an excellent dessert made with precision.
And that's how we're able to take the playful side of this place seriously.
The Eatery is the brainchild of a husband-and-wife team with lots of restaurant savvy. Executive chef Jess Milbourn, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., is the force in the kitchen. He calls his food a modern take on American ranch cooking – big on portions, big on flavor, with some nice twists to give the food a new personality.
His wife, Monda Korich, is a former manager at midtown mainstay Paesano's. She runs the front of the house like a pro and is largely responsible for how quickly this place has gone from upstart to a bustling bistro with polish and poise.
Two of the servers we had during our visits were so good they could work at any restaurant in town. Their knowledge, attention to detail and charisma are doing great things at The Eatery.
During one visit, we ordered all over the menu – the big, the bold, the small plates, and even those things known as salads. We poked and prodded and tasted.
On the night we got those amazing fries – on the menu they're called "Disco fries Ryan" after a culinary school classmate – we also savored the mussels, one meaty little nibble at a time. These subtle bivalves are sautéed in white wine, and with the addition of minced shallots, butter, lemon and herbs they create a delicious broth we sopped up with the accompanying grilled bread.
We're hearing a lot about pork belly these days, and if you try it at The Eatery you'll see why. It's delicious – crispy on the outside and tender, creamy and decadent inside. This $9 dish works great as an appetizer or could be a meal if paired with another small plate. The only downer here was the sweet potato purée. The too-tame flavor threw us off, and it was a tad chilly in the middle.
The macaroni and cheese ($6), could have been named after '80s pop star Rick Astley, for it was pale and dull to look at. But this sad-looking little dish had plenty of pop – lots of flavor, thick melted cheese and enough pasta to make us lament our first impressions. Let's just make it more inviting, possibly with something crunchy and toasted on top.
The fish on the menu seems to change according to market availability. One night, we had a grilled rock cod, large, thick and tender. But the spinach sautéed with lemon, chili and herb butter practically stole the show. The simple flavors were so alive.
The pork T-bone could have been a home run. The Berkshire pork is thick, tender and succulent. The accompanying broccolini is outstanding, loaded with flavor and nicely cooked. But the butternut squash risotto on the plate let us down. It was simply under-seasoned, resulting in a dull, watery waste of space.
If there is a shortcoming that rears its head at The Eatery, it is the kitchen's intermittent reluctance to season the food with vigor. For every outstanding and intensely flavored dish of, say, spinach or broccoli, there is one that wants to be more, like the risotto and the sweet potato purée.
The potato cakes, or mammoth potato croquettes, are another example. These breaded and deep-fried mashed potatoes come with the steak. They look great, but once we got through the gold-brown crust, the interior was too bland. The smaller version of these can be found on the "meat and potatoes" appetizer ($8). They have more flavor because there's proportionately more crispy crust. A little more assertiveness could make the big potato cakes a major hit.
The wine list is small, but it is noteworthy for two things: enough variety to pair wine with multiple dishes and an overall affordable selection. The list seems to suit the concept and the vibe of the restaurant.
Overall, making this look easy so soon takes a lot of work and smarts. For West Sacramento, it's already a big hit. For the rest of us on the other side, it's a new temptation that's worth the short trip across the river.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (lunch) and 4-9 p.m. (dinner) Tuesday to Friday, 4-9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday (brunch).
Open bar? Beer and wine.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes (kitchen will cook off menu by request; it's best to call ahead regarding dietary restrictions).
Overall: 3 stars (good)
Since opening in August, The Eatery has emerged as a real crowd-pleaser in West Sacramento. The setting is casual, the vibe is appealing and the food is high caliber. Sure, the neighbors are happy to have a go-to spot, but this place is good enough to attract folks from outside the city limits, too.
Food: 3 stars (good)
Here's an example of a restaurant that knows its strengths. Think of California ranch cooking with modern touches. The flatiron steak, the T-bone pork chop, the giant burger and the amazing/insane "disco fries Ryan" show how that food can be of good quality and still be fun. Dishes like the mussels and the excellent pork belly appetizer offer a more subtle side. The s'more was our favorite dessert.
Service: 3 stars (good)
What a pleasant surprise to venture into an area without a lot of restaurant competition and encounter at least two servers who were top-notch performers. They embodied the restaurant's concept perfectly – casual, smart and personable.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
The only thing missing is a panoramic view. Look out the front window and you'll see Target in the distance. Still, the room itself has a pleasant style and a lively energy when it's busy.
Value 3 stars (good)
With the economy stuck in the mud, many folks are looking for the right mix of quality and affordability. They'll find it here. The grilled steak with potato cakes and broccolini is an outstanding deal at $16. The mussels cooked in white wine is $11, the pork belly and very large hamburger are $9 each. The soon-to-be-famous fries topped with two eggs are $10 and could feed four. The wine list also features solid selections at reasonable prices.