Over the past year, Enotria has quietly and carefully been hiring one top-flight restaurant professional after another, all with designs on transforming this place into the best restaurant in the city.
How could this possibly be? Are they fiercely determined? Or pathologically delusional?
When I visited Enotria several times a couple of years back on the heels of the restaurant's $1.5 million renovation, my impressions were alarmingly mixed. It was a pretty good restaurant but an underperforming one, with great wine, mediocre food and a hazy notion of what it could and should be. If it were to become a good restaurant, it needed to tighten its focus, elevate the menu and improve its approach to marrying wine and food.
But a great restaurant? That would require lots more skill, plenty of hard work and a 10-pound bag of pixie dust.
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And yet, Enotria has done it, suddenly and with a startling degree of wisdom and sophistication. It's not only the most improved restaurant I can remember, it has come back with a vengeance as perhaps the very best fine-dining restaurant in Sacramento and beyond.
My three recent visits to Enotria, it's worth noting, were not exactly anonymous. At least two employees recognized me. Did I receive special attention? Probably. Does every guest get a very high level of attention? More than likely.
While our region has its share of excellent restaurants – Mulvaney's, Ambience, Ella, The Kitchen, Biba, The Firehouse, Hawks and Taste, among them – no other place is doing food at this level. If you're curious about the caliber of cooking at restaurants in San Francisco or New York with a Michelin star or two, visit the stratospherically upgraded Enotria. It's that good from start to finish.
The final piece of the complex puzzle was shoring up the kitchen. Just a couple of months back, Enotria hired Pajo Bruich, an executive chef with modernist sensibilities and a relentless desire to innovate. It assembled an all-star cast around him, including pastry chef Edward Martinez, whose dazzling desserts could go toe to toe with Bruich's often-brilliant food.
Yet, they're not the only stars at Enotria. Matthew Lewis, the sommelier, brings an extra dimension to the dining experience with his enthusiasm for all things wine, his geeked-out encyclopedic knowledge and his willingness to showcase odd, interesting and edgy selections alongside mainstream ones. To order a three-glass wine flight from Lewis is to sit down to a tasting that comes with a recitation on what to expect, a personal reflection or two, and more than one revelation about terroir, soil content, growers, winemakers, history, geography or an any other topic that bubbles to the surface.
I have never encountered a sommelier as active, engaging and eager to share his passion for wine. Yet, I'm not surprised. We first knew of Lewis when he was a waiter at the now-defunct Slocum House in Fair Oaks, and he easily made my list of best servers for 2009.
I can't imagine how many tastings Lewis pursued before arriving at a crisp Junmai Daiginjo Sake by Konteki to pair with Bruich's incredible squid dish with kimchi, pork belly and salmon roe.
Even though Enotria is known for its wine inventory, the food is the star now and the wine provides the supporting cast if you opt for the full dinner experience, which is your choice of four courses of food with wine pairings for $80.
This option, frankly, is the best way to showcase the inventiveness and execution in the kitchen with the breadth and depth of the wine program. Whether you're a foodie or a wine aficionado – or both – you wouldn't be out of line showing up for dinner with a pen and notepad to capture some of what you see and hear and learn as you eat and sip and savor.
Bruich's stint as chef at Lounge ON20 was something of a tragic comedy. He was creating seriously good modernist cuisine in a setting that looked way too much like a singles bar trying too hard to be cool and cosmopolitan.
Now the setting and the sense of purpose are in place to give Bruich's food the platform it deserves. And his food is better than ever – more refined, more accessible, self-assured and more fun. It shows restraint and in doing so it underscores the creative element without making that the only thing that matters. His plating skills have gone from very good to great – an artistic use of complementary colors and patterns and spacing on each and every plate.
Best of all, his approach to flavors seems to have become more focused than ever. He's taking our collective food memories and our expectations of how things should taste, then imparting his deeply personal spin. Bite by bite, course by course and one epiphany after the other, Bruich's food is at once comforting and challenging, if not awe-inspiring.
We simply could not narrow down the dishes to choose our favorites. The seared day-boat scallops plated on a bed of yogurt and paired with quinoa and – get this – exotically spiced granola, was the most memorable, delicious, startling and soothing scallops dish I've ever tasted.
But was it as good as the pork belly? In recent months, I've feasted on excellent pork belly at Blackbird and Restaurant Thir13en. I've had pork belly at Michelin three-star restaurants.
Enotria's version was the most visually stunning, multidimensional, creatively realized and delicious pork belly of all.
You take a slice of pickled peach (yes, I said that), dip it in the dehydrated bacon powder that resembles powdered sugar, chase it with a solidified bar of bacon-infused cream (topped with peach gelée) and then dig into a cut of pork belly that is tender, toothsome and glazed with something that tastes like root beer.
Then there was the beef tartar, a raw dish seared into my memory because it takes a classic and makes it new. This tender Niman Ranch rib-eye is diced, molded into a rectangle, then topped with a salty caper relish, which is then topped with frozen marbles of Greek yogurt and whole-grain mustard.
There's more great thinking: Enotria can appeal to the ambitious and adventurous foodie who wants to try squid, pork belly and arctic char while still pleasing the more mainstream, even timid eater more inclined to select poultry, pasta or steak.
Bruich does a wonderfully inventive chilled tomato dish, for example, that looks like a poached egg, tastes like a salad and eats like a soup. Really. The egg white is actually buratta cheese and the yolk is a tomato that has been puréed and then made into a sphere – don't ask, it's magic. You pierce the "yolk" and the liquid oozes until the dish becomes a gazpacho. You start with a fork and finish with a spoon. I almost needed grief counseling when I finished this dish and looked down at the empty bowl.
There was even a tomato dish for dessert, one of my favorites, though more traditional palates will be well served to order the caramel dessert topped with black salt or the deep, dark chocolate offering. How does Martinez, the pastry chef whose talent knows no bounds, come up with these amazing treats? It looks and tastes like magic.
And magic at the end of the meal is certainly fitting for a restaurant that has done so much so quickly to be so very good.
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: Restaurant: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wine bar: 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar with an emphasis on wine
Vegetarian friendly? Yes. Order off the menu for a multi-course vegetarian dinner.
Takeout? Not recommended
Noise level: Subdued
Overall ★ ★ ★ ★
This greatly improved restaurant features an all-star cast led by an enterprising executive chef whose food showcases artistry, inventiveness and vivid flavors, all within a farm-to-table edict; a wizard of a pastry chef who is not afraid to take risks and has the skill to amaze; and a sommelier whose knowledge, passion and engaging personality add a significant component to the dining experience. Enotria has become a fantastic restaurant. If these talents and others can push and inspire one another, there are few limits to what Enotria can achieve.
Food ★ ★ ★ ★
We've seen the makings of landmark-type dishes here, meaning you won't see them anywhere else. Pajo Bruich's highlights include scallops with Greek yogurt, quinoa and exotically spiced granola; arctic char in a green curry broth; a squid appetizer with kimchi and salmon roe; steak tartar topped with a caper relish and Dippin' Dots-like balls of yogurt and whole-grain mustard; a pork belly dish that was a work of art with flavors to match; and a witty tomato- and-buratta starter course you have to see to believe. Edward Martinez's desserts are avant garde yet approachable, including one featuring tomatoes (and tomato "paper"). The vast wine selection is already highly regarded. Wine flights now include user-friendly tasting notes. On one visit, the sommelier helped us select a bottle or 2006 Barolo that was not only affordable ($69) but drinkable before 2021. We also enjoyed the mixed drinks, including a bacon-infused Manhattan and modern mojito shot made of a jellylike sphere flavored with mint and served on a spoon.
Service ★ ★ ★ ★
From the moment you are greeted at the front door, it is apparent that this restaurant is run by pros. The personable servers all demonstrate a veteran's skill set – attentiveness, knowledge, eye for detail – and make the difficult look easy. Sommelier Matthew Lewis is a tremendous asset whose own skill set should garner plenty of admiration locally and perhaps nationally.
Ambience ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The building doesn't have the architectural bones to inspire awe, but Enotria works hard with what it has, including a large patio courtyard for fair-weather dining, live music some nights, and a separate area for the wine bar and snacking.
Value ★ ★ ★ ★
The four-course "Enotria experience" with wine pairings is an expensive one – $80 per person. Expect the tab to run close to $200 for two. For the quality of the food and service, this is not only a memorable dining event, but a relative bargain, too.