Carla Meyer

Dining review: Thir13en could take a chance on greatness

You start off with an idea, a vision. You stake your claim, tell a story through your cooking and, if you want to keep the lights on, you adjust as the weeks turn into months.

Sometimes you have to scale back, reconfigure and keep moving in order to remain relevant. But you don't have to sacrifice quality.

If that sums up the concept behind Restaurant Thir13en, which opened last year at the Sterling Hotel with dreams of modernist cooking techniques and haute cuisine, it's because those early visions of culinary artistry have not been abandoned, only toned down. The restaurant and its concept are a work in progress.

Brought to you by the folks behind Tuli Bistro in midtown, Thir13en is not, for now, a place to seek out the very now and the ultra wow, and one could argue that it retreated to less demanding bistro fare too readily.

It is clearly a good restaurant, but it has the potential to be a great restaurant.

Thir13en does not compromise on its core values – the ingredients are premium, as local as possible and, in the hands of owner-chef Adam Pechal, they are the building blocks for exciting dishes. Take the scallops served with perfectly cooked risotto. By perfect, we mean that elusive quality in which the rice is creamy without being mushy, and the flavors are deep yet more subtle than intense.

The dish showed skill. It showed personality and, looking back after five visits here, it's a meal that best illustrates how Pechal marries the hearty, rustic side of his repertoire with a certain elegance and restraint.

Often, the dishes here are more causal bistro style than fine dining, which is apparently a nod to what works at Tuli and to the demands of the clientele on a downtown block that is slightly off the beaten path. On rare occasions, a few dishes didn't work for us, but they missed the mark on the side of boldness or daring rather than meekness or conformity.

Such a noble miss might be the butternut squash soup with some kind of cilantro curry. Sure, it had plenty of flavor and just the right puréed creaminess. But it was too big and bold and blustery – wonderfully so, if you're in the mood – and should have come with a warning: extra hot and spicy. I would eat that soup again, but I would do so with a Ruhstaller 1881 (one of Sacramento's new local beers) in each hand to douse the incandescence on my palate.

I imagine the lowly hamburger was not in Pechal's original vision for Thir13en, but he just might be doing the best burger around – and that's saying a lot in Sacramento, where many top restaurants do a trophy burger. Our medium-rare burger with a house-made sauce during one visit for lunch was simply perfect in every way – taste, texture, appearance, originality and eat-ability.

So Thir13en has that going for it. Which is nice.

But this is not a burger joint, and there is plenty more to admire on the menu. The beef stroganoff with house-made pasta exhibited excellent balance. There was rich aroma, a complexity of flavors and, best of all, that luscious mouthfeel that makes this dish so rewarding when done well.

The restaurant's personality shines through on Sunday brunch, too, when we saw more of this telltale style with a chicken-fried pork chop, polenta and eggs. The pancakes also had their own special touches, including goat cheese combined with berries to give the dish a tangy and tart finish.

Though the restaurant's identity continues to evolve, Pechal is in his comfort zone doing this mix of rustic and refined, edgy and elegant. Nothing seems to be overreaching or showing off. Nearly everything except the sweetbreads – inexplicably overwhelmed by a vinegary sauce – made sense.

Even the roast chicken, something most adventurous foodies would eschew, showed how good product, thoughtful preparation (brining) and a command of technique combined for a bird that was tender, succulent and, thanks to a topping of salsa verde, more than a tad dynamic. Plated with a creamy polenta, broccoli and cauliflower, this dish was understated yet hearty.

Pork belly has become a star appetizer on many local menus these days – and for good reason. In Pechal's kitchen, it may be the perfect ingredient, as it combines a certain elbows-on-the-table sensibility with the potential to be rich, even decadent.

This pork belly, cooked sous vide for 12 hours, did it all. It was plated with artistry, and the pork was so tender and rich we were inclined to let the meat melt away on our tongues. What's more, it was served with a clever pickled apple that made everything – the texture, the flavors, the eye candy element – all the better.

The desserts came off surprisingly well – surprising because we were initially disappointed with the chocolate cake (too plain in appearance, too dull in taste), only to order it again and see how it evolved. This time, the cake was topped with a pistachio brittle and an excellent chocolate ganache that made everything better. The Meyer lemon cheesecake was as good as it gets.

Beyond the food, the ambience is something special. You enter through a side door. The ceiling is low. The room is nicely appointed and cozy, complete with a 13-seat communal table and several small tables. Just a few minutes from bustling downtown streets, it can feel like a hideaway or a secreted speakeasy, right down to the skill with mixed drinks, and a smart offering of beer and wine. But the acoustics need work. When it's good and busy, it can be loud.

Thir13en has an excellent core group on staff – the host, the servers, the bartender and the general manager all know the business and their service was close to flawless.

Now, how do you go from good to great? The answer may come from taking some of that original fine dining vision, rolling out more daring and dynamic dishes gradually while leaving the security of bistro fare behind.

Even though Thir13en shows flashes of greatness and the potential for more, its goodness is plenty good for now.

Restaurant Thir13en

1300 H St., Sacramento

(916) 594-7669

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 5-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Full bar? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.Takeout? Yes.

Overall 3 stars (good)

This is a good restaurant with the potential to be even better. As the identity evolves and Chef Adam Pechal shows his range and hones his repertoire, this place could be something very special, complete with the feel of a cozy hideaway tucked inside the historic Sterling Hotel.

Food 3 stars (good)

Only a few noble misses – an overly spicy soup, an oddly flavored sweetbreads dish – kept this category from being "very good." The gourmet burger is among the best in town, the housemade pastas are excellent, the pork belly is an artistic treat, the scallops and risotto are spot on and the desserts are a simple pleasure. The wine list, mixed drinks and craft beers are all impressive.

Service 3 stars (good)

This is a small but professional group. They know their business, they go about their work with style and personality, and they add value to the dining experience.

Ambience 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

With its low ceiling and entrance via a side door, Thir13en has that feel of a charming hideaway. The room is cozy and lively, but the intrusive noise one busy night showed the acoustics need work. The outdoor patio is lovely and could be even more charming with a few decorative touches beyond the basic tables and chairs.

Value 3 stars (good)

The prices are not cheap – dinner for two with wine could be $75 or more – but the emphasis on locally sourced quality ingredients shows the restaurant's commitment to organic and sustainable farming practices, all of which translate to better flavors on the plate.