Doug and Barbara Silva have been running Silva's Sheldon Inn since 1988, not long after Doug bowed out of his two-year stint as opening chef for a fledgling ristorante called Biba.
Biba went on to become one of Sacramento's great dining destinations. Silva's Sheldon Inn took shape, settled in and endured as a mainstay of reliable, quality cooking.
But it's a 30-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, and we wondered how it would hold up as a dining destination for those outside the immediate Elk Grove area.
Over the past 25 years, Elk Grove grew up and enveloped the tiny rural outpost of Sheldon before succumbing to the drastic correction in the housing market. Even with the troubling economy, there are more good restaurants and excellent restaurants in the Sacramento region than at any time in our history.
Several newer places – whether we're talking about Mulvaney's or Magpie or Boulevard Bistro – have surpassed the standard set by places like Silva's.
The quality of ingredients is not in question. The meats and fish are first rate. As is the produce, some harvested from a garden plot on the premises.
Everything on the menu, from the spicy-hot Portuguese bean soup to the salmon with tarragon-lemon butter or the ribeye with mushrooms and a sauce made with fortified wine, showcases a style of cooking that is rigorous, flavor- forward and seasonal.
Respect for good food and the traditions of rustic, country cooking are the hallmarks of Silva's Sheldon Inn.
Daring, edgy, experimental and unusual are not.
Silva's Sheldon Inn may not be resting on its laurels; it has simply reached a level worth maintaining, while losing some of its standing in the overall restaurant picture.
The result is a dining experience that is likable but not inspiring, with food that is often good but never great. Some of it was wonderfully flavored, some overcooked or over- seasoned, and goodness me, some of the service was so plodding we could have used a "Farmer's Almanac" to predict when our wayward server would show up again at our table.
Were we having dinner or being held hostage?
The question occurred to me while we waited one night for her to pick up my credit card before it expired.
Silva's Sheldon Inn has been reviewed by The Bee several times since it opened, earning anywhere from three to 3 1/2 stars on a four-star scale. All of which leads us to the conclusion that remaining reliably good for this many years means a slight downgrade in the overall rating by the standards of 2012.
Dinner for two with wine can cost $100 or so. Most of the main dishes are around $20, with some as high as $29.
That places it in the upper tier of fine-dining restaurants, though the ambience is a tad less sophisticated than the food. There's peeling paint on the steps out front. The dining area is open and anything but cozy. It feels more like a dining hall than a dining room.
Servers look sharp, clad in white shirts and black bistro aprons, and we received plenty of attention from assistant servers throughout our visits.
We have mixed feelings about the food here. Some of the dishes left us puzzled. The baked brie, topped with a pesto featuring sun-dried tomatoes, was pleasing only if you didn't like the taste of brie. The topping overwhelmed rather than enhanced this subtle cheese. The accompanying little toasts were stale.
The salmon special on one occasion was pleasing only if you didn't covet the taste of salmon. The tarragon-lemon butter overwhelmed the fish, imposing a taste more like an herbaceous salad than a seafood dinner. That's a shame for salmon otherwise perfectly cooked.
The ribeye steak, with mushrooms and a dark-hued and beautifully balanced Madeira sauce, was marred only by the fact that it was not the steak we ordered. Did our server hear "medium-well" when we said "medium-rare?"
The same goes for the calf's liver, a long-standing favorite on the main menu. Overcooked as it was, it still was delicious, with a vinegary sweetness to the organ meat. But the two meaty strips of bacon laid across the top of the liver clearly had been cooked ahead of time. Dry and tough rather than tender and sizzling, they marred the dish significantly.
Silva's menu is appealing, divided into the standard offerings and the nightly specials, many of which showcase fresh seafood.
Our favorite dishes included an appetizer – deep-fried calamari with garlic-lemon mayo, appreciated for its simplicity, precision frying and maybe a bit of 1990s nostalgia.
Another old Silva's favorite, the pork chop stuffed with Granny Smith apples and bacon, reminded us what works so well here. The cooking was precise, the meat tender and juicy, and best of all, the flavors were alive and harmonious with the cider cream sauce.
The desserts are a treat from a bygone era, featuring a dessert tray that allowed us to see all of the offerings – when our server eventually got around to bringing it by. Our favorites were the slices of cheesecake we had on separate visits, though you won't go wrong with the chocolate mousse.
Though Silva's is showing its age, for better or worse, it is not above a few 21st century restaurant affectations. The teriyaki sauce for the rather ordinary skirt steak dish is described as "housemade." Of course it is. The pork chop, we learn, is from Niman Ranch, whatever that means these days – hippie-turned-farmer Bill Niman left the company in 2007 and vowed never to eat Niman Ranch meat.
Silva's Sheldon Inn remains a favorite for folks in and around Elk Grove. But is it a dining destination? For the curious and those seeking country charm and solid cooking? Sure. For foodies? Not anymore.
Editor’s note:This story has been edited to remove erroneous information about the late Don Brown, an accomplished chef in Sacramento who worked with Doug Silva at Silva’s Sheldon Inn and previously for many years at Biba. Mr. Brown died Feb. 17, 2010 of a disabling stroke. The Bee regrets the error.
Silva's Sheldon Inn
9000 Grant Line Road, Elk Grove
Hours: 5-8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Full bar: Yes
Vegetarian friendly: No
Takeout: Not recommended
Noise level: Moderate
Overall: two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
A mainstay in the region since 1988 for quality ingredients, reliable cooking and a friendly atmosphere.
Food: two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Pasta, steaks, chicken, seafood – the variety is impressive, though vegetarians may have to make special requests. Favorites include the pork chop stuffed with apples, the Portuguese soup with chorizo and kale, and for starters the fried calamari. Some of our main courses were not cooked accurately and could have been seasoned with more care. Desserts are impressive. The wine list is well thought-out, with a variety of regional options at reasonable price points.
Service: two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
While we saw plenty of hustle and attentiveness throughout the room, not everyone is up to speed – literally. Our server on two recent occasions made us wonder more than once if she was ever going to return to our table.
Ambience: two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The room feels more like a dining hall and, despite the quilts hanging on the wall, could do more to exude the kind of sophisticated country charm or warmth we would expect. Pleasant enough, but it has potential for more.
Value: two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Most of the main dishes range from the low $20s to high $20s. Those are serious prices. The sourcing of ingredients is top notch, and the cooking is mostly solid.
Noteworthy: This is a family-owned place, which means the owners like to take a vacation every so often, closing the restaurant – usually the first half of January and July.