The Sacramento restaurant scene just got bigger and more eclectic and, thus, more competitive.
Grits on the grid? They're here and they're delicious on the shrimp-and-grits plate at The Porch, which showcases Southern cooking in a hip, urban setting.
Mongolian barbecue has come to midtown with the catchy name Mongo Mongo, opening where the short-lived Garlic Shack went bongo-bongo at 19th and J streets.
A new Indian restaurant? That, too. Monsoon opened on one of the most visible corners in town – 16th and K streets – though its inconsistent start raises a question we wish we didn't have to consider: Is one more Indian restaurant one too many?
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Early success – or early clumsiness – does not necessarily predict future success. Look no further than Bistro Michel, which sputtered out of the blocks only to emerge, little by little, as the smart and charming place it is now.
The Porch Restaurant and Bar (1815 K St., Sacramento)
If you were a regular at Celestin's, the long-admired midtown restaurant serving Caribbean and Cajun cuisine, you won't recognize the place that took over.
They've knocked down walls. They've put in eye-catching new floors, painted, redecorated, re- arranged, gave it plenty of wow, and, while they were at it, brought a whole new way of cooking to town.
Let's call it "New South" cuisine meets Northern California, for the ingredients these folks showcase local, sustainable and organic where possible. You can read about the admirable product sourcing on the restaurant's website.
It's all very impressive – on paper.
The early results on the plate are mixed. That's to be expected as The Porch figures out what needs to be tweaked or tossed.
It's owned by Jerry Mitchell and John Lopez, who also run Capitol Garage a few blocks away. Jon Clemons, who distinguished himself in the minuscule kitchen at Capitol Garage, is the chef. The trio brainstormed the concept, then flew to Charleston, S.C., to check out how it's done.
They ate at the new and widely acclaimed Husk, but actually preferred a place next door called Poogan's Porch. Putting in that kind of effort bodes well as the menu – and the logistics in the kitchen – take shape.
While the shrimp and grits were superb, the fried chicken just wasn't cutting it. There's a simple remedy: better breading or batter, more consistent temperature of the frying oil and a more discriminating set of eyes giving the OK about whether it's crisp enough.
Before the first bite, we could tell that our chicken was too soggy and limp. Closer inspection showed that this was a plump, high-caliber chicken that had been brined for greater succulence. But with fried chicken, you have to make a good first impression. The aroma, the heat, the texture all come together to say something special about how it is going to taste.
That could be a signature dish at The Porch if they get the details right – details like the temperature of the mashed potatoes. Ours were cold inside. Another easy fix.
The cornbread was hearty and bold, with plenty of thick chunks of bacon inside and all kinds of flavors bouncing around. Some might think it's actually too much of a good thing, though I certainly enjoyed the effort.
The menu is refreshingly different. It's Southern influenced – it's not trying to be true Southern cooking. I've lived in five Southern states and eaten all levels of that regional cuisine. The Porch is on the right track. It's serious and fun, playful without being silly.
Prices are on the high side, ranging from the teens to mid-20s for main dishes. That's because of the quality of the ingredients.
The short rib hash comes with mashed sweet potatoes, an egg over easy and collard greens. I'm impressed that someone would even attempt that on a menu in midtown.
The smoked brisket has greens on the plate, too, along with a full-flavored macaroni and cheese.
You can order several items as side dishes, including collard greens ($4), white cheddar grits ($6) and warm bacon and blue cheese potato salad ($6). The grits are as good as any I had during my seven years in Alabama. Buttermilk biscuits are $5, which is $5 too much until they get them right.
The Porch has a stylish, energetic feel to the room. It's much more open than Celestin's and looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, whether you're there for lunch, brunch, dinner or drinks.
Mongo Mongo Mongolian BBQ (1830 J St., Sacramento)
The concept is so simple I could explain it with a bowl and a pair of tongs. There, that's the concept.
Get in line, grab a bowl and survey the food awaiting you. Pick what you want, place it in your bowl and hand it off to the friendly cook, who will cook it over high heat before you finish nibbling on the complimentary egg rolls.
Our eyes lit up when we saw that dinner is all you can eat – for $10.95. That's quite a lure, whether you're a broke midtown hipster or a famished midtown banker.
Though the premise is Chinese, you can make the ingredients in your bowl all your own. You can't really mess this up, but neither can you create something astoundingly delicious. It's simple good grub. A bowl, a pair of tongs and a variety of simple ingredients.
My first bowl had thick udon, broccoli, peppers and several other vegetables, along with thin slices of pork and beef. I added a mild sauce, handed it to the cook and took my seat. I was, indeed, hungry, and went back for another bowl – this time with more garlic and more spice.
Mongo Mongo had only been open a few days when we visited. It's a cash-only place. If you're like me and never seem to have more than three bucks on you, that can be off-putting.
The food and the ease of it make up for that. If you're a hearty eater, you just may love the prices. Takeout for dinner is a few dollars cheaper and works much the same way. Pick the ingredients, hand them off to the cook, and you're out the door in minutes.
Mongo Mongo is open for lunch and late for the bar crowd.
Monsoon Indian Bar and Grill (1020 16th St., Sacramento)
With Mati's and Bombay Bar & Grill nearby and Katmandu on Broadway, Monsoon is facing some direct – and serious – competition for Indian food. So far, it isn't in the same league, even if it has one of the best-looking restaurants around.
The employees are friendly, too. But the food ranged from so-so to alarmingly bad – small pools of grease sat atop the sauces on three of our curry dishes. The telltale complexity of the flavors working together was lacking, too. Many of the dishes projected a flavor profile that was too one- dimensional.
Worst of all, Monsoon set a new benchmark for naan bread, that light but chewy treat. This naan was practically without flavor and was so tough in places it was difficult to chew. It's such a simple pleasure to have good naan – and such a revealing cry for help when you don't.
As the weeks go on, Monsoon is going to have to show that it means business. It will have to address fundamental issues of quality and consistency in the kitchen before it will be able to stand up to any of its worthy adversaries.