Carla Meyer

Dining review: Old Sac's refined Firehouse has an edgy side, too

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

The Firehouse Restaurant, stately and refined as it may be, faces more challenges than any other eating establishment in the city.

It has to live up to its lofty reputation – and overcome it.

It has to be all the things it used to be – while keeping pace with the many wonderful restaurants that have burst onto the scene over the past decade.

It has to be Lawrence Welk and Miles Davis on a nightly basis. It has to be old money and new, fancy without being stodgy, attentive without coming off as overbearing.

Most of all, it must convince new customers that its high prices – higher than any other restaurant around – are worth it.

How is it doing?

It's nailing it.

The Firehouse knows its mission and its challenges. The menu offers classic dishes and longtime favorites while showcasing new ideas and flavor combinations that suggest ingenuity in the kitchen. This is a dynasty. There's no room for slackers and little margin for error.

Beyond the food and superior service, the Firehouse maintains a renowned wine list containing 20,000 bottles, puts on regular wine dinners and changes its menus with the seasons. With its walled courtyard out back, it offers one of the most enchanting outdoor dining experiences anywhere.

Is it old-fashioned? Sure it is. But you sense the VIP treatment the moment you walk in the front door, whether you're a fourth-generation member of the Sutter Club or a midtown 20-something who saved up for a first-class celebration. Once you find the front door, which does not seem to line up visually with the flow of the streetscape, there are no more awkward moments, unless you ask about a Groupon discount or try to order Screaming Eagle by the glass.

The service needs no introduction, though folks with preconceived notions might assume there is an element of snobbery at play. Not at all.

Our three servers during four visits were smart, funny and sincere. One told us about his passion for riding his bike, another her misbegotten attempts at growing cucumbers at home.

The wine by the glass that's not on the list? Our server jotted the name on a business card in case we wanted to track it down. The specifics about the fish special? Our server knew the ingredients, the techniques, and why they worked so well. It's so inspiring and relaxing – and entertaining – to know that every aspect of service is accounted for.

In the kitchen, executive chef Deneb Williams may face the toughest test of all. He has to comfort the comfortable, but he also has to stir them up if they're willing. He'll do the filet mignon to perfection and a chateaubriand for two that will take any steak lover halfway to heaven. On those plates, he'll highlight the bounty of Northern Californian farms, whether it's bright green Brussels sprouts, red potato gratinée or a butternut squash risotto. Yes, the Firehouse is a farm-to-table restaurant.

But Williams reminds the adventurous diner that while the Firehouse may be over 50 and rooted in tradition, it's not stuck in the past.

Take the pork belly appetizer. It pinned our ears to the sides of our heads with a startling yet soothing provocation of flavors and an oh-lord texture that melts in your mouth and promptly coats it with richness. Pork belly is everywhere these days and this may be the best we've tried.

Williams' version is inspired by his love of the Oaxacan cuisine of Mexico, with that deep, smoky flavor of the achiote rub balanced by the bright flavor notes of citrus and honey in the glaze. The pork belly itself seems so simple, thanks to an array of classic techniques and care. The meat is brined for 24 hours in a solution of water, sugar, salt and herbs; then it's braised as layers of flavors build and meld with the mire poix, herbs and white wine, followed by an overnight rest in the braising liquid.

It's seared to order, quickly and carefully, followed by an application of the glistening glaze. Then it's plated with a mix of pickled jicama and squash. Nothing to it.

That is how we started our lunch in the courtyard on an unseasonably mild weekday in late winter. Drinks, too, are au courant. Among our favorites are the espresso martini garnished with whole coffee beans, and a whiskey rye offering called the "Jack Burton," complete with a thick strip of bacon to replace the stir stick.

At the Firehouse, we tackled the food in every way possible. We went old school with the chateaubriand for two. Maybe it was a little too safe for our liking, but it was done perfectly, with a bordelaise sauce that really sang. The steak itself, thick and mellow, was as tender as can be.

We went the foodie route, tackling the five-course chef's tasting menu ($68, $98 with wine pairings) and found the pacing of the courses nearly perfect, from the smoked tenderloin carpaccio with herbed goat cheese croquettes to the chocolate mousse cake for dessert.

That night, we also went with the fish special, which is where you'll often encounter the new and edgy side of this grand old restaurant. This fillet of California sea bass was pan-seared, with an apple-honey glaze and fresh cashews, all set atop basmati rice with mussels and prawns nestled in a spicy, complex mulligatawny broth that transported my senses to the heart of India.

Our savvy server helped me settle on a pinot noir from New Zealand to pair with this rather amazing dish.

The Firehouse doesn't have any clear weaknesses. One of my soups underperformed, alerting the front of the palate with flavor but dissolving too quickly on the finish. A minor fault. The desserts, however, are a clear step or two below the savory portions of the menu. They are good but not great, and not necessarily inventive enough, classic enough or elegant in composition to keep up with the rest of the dining experience.

That said, our tremendous service was a special pleasure all its own. With a renowned wine program and thoughtful cooking that pleases two distinct camps, the Firehouse continues to make a powerful case as one of the great dining experiences in the city.