Carla Meyer

Dining review: Lively Red Rabbit is doing a lot right

The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar is one of those places with the potential to be too precious for its own good. It's local. It's sustainable. It's global. It has craft cocktails. It has peasant food with artisanal touches.

The chef and bartender were given equity in the restaurant without risking any of their own dough. The employees – all of them – qualify for profit sharing. In their spare time, everyone involved with the restaurant volunteers as crime-fighting superheroes while running a fair-trade bike-share program (OK, I made that up).

This midtown joint ticks off so many of the right boxes that, on paper at least, you couldn't be blamed for concluding that it was, that's right, annoying.

And yet, this restaurant-bar has emerged as the little red rabbit that could. It's smart, fun, lively and – somehow, some way – it manages to be sincere about it all without making us wish we could escape from "Portlandia."

That's why the Red Rabbit, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary Saturday, has begun to thrive, why all signs suggest it is poised to be a force on the midtown scene for years to come. The food, the drinks, the service, the décor, the energy in the room, even the name (a nod to the giant red rabbit art installation at the airport) – it all works. And there's room for improvement.

The braised lamb shank ($22.50) with creamy white polenta and braised Swiss chard was an excellent example of good ingredients and skillful execution. The thick, crispy square of pork belly ($9) with a lemon caper sauce was a tender, tasty, rustic, comforting appetizer. The eye-catching "winter is coming caprese salad" ($7), featuring slabs of tender golden beets instead of tomato slices, along with croquettes of warmed goat cheese, was clever and beautifully done, even if the pickled red onions threatened to overwhelm the dish with their acidity.

To dine and drink at the Red Rabbit, whether you know it or not, is to come in contact with someone you may have heard of – Sonny Mayugba, a one-time competitive skateboarder, snowboarder, magazine publisher and bon vivant.

The Red Rabbit is his vision, though he was smart enough to tap a talented bartender, Matt Nurge, and experienced chef, John Bays, to make it come alive.

It was Mayugba who challenged Bays to consider the best of so-called peasant food and come up with a globally inspired menu "for a place you would actually want to go to."

The food here does indeed have an edge. It's creative and thoughtful. It's all over the map with flavors, textures and ingredients. Service is solid and sometimes well above average. The menu features several winners and a few clunkers.

And while I appreciate Mayugba's enthusiasm for having a little of this and a little of that from all corners of the globe, the menu at times lacks a unifying sense of purpose.

It can come off at times like a grown-up version of Tower Café, the Broadway mainstay that tries to make everyone happy and winds up serving nothing more than ho-hum food under a fantasy called international cuisine.

To get to the next level, the Red Rabbit must get out of its own way and let the talent in the room push the boundaries beyond a cool-seeming but occasionally confining concept.

In other words, some of my least-favorite encounters at the Red Rabbit were with the peasant food. I didn't really like the braised short rib meat tacos (too busy, too fussy, too banal) and would much sooner go to Chando's or Lalo's for the real deal. Same with the ramen with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms – why go to the Red Rabbit when I can sit down at Shoki and enjoy the cooking by someone who lives and dies by the quality of his ramen and broths?

The Red Rabbit shows some of its personality without being derivative in a sandwich such as the "B.L.B." ($10). Again, it's those beets in place of out-of-season tomatoes, along with meaty bacon, fresh greens and horseradish on ciabatta.

The "pork and beans" ($18.50) is a robust comfort food without being too cute – a Niman Ranch pork chop with peach salsa and a simple cassoulet of cranberry beans and pancetta. I would hardly call this a peasant dish. It's sophisticated, thoughtful cooking using top-notch ingredients.

The same skill and standards were found in brunch dishes we loved best. Messy and mouthwatering, the "Sactown Moco" ($12) was a fried egg, brown rice, chorizo-bacon patty and mushroom gravy that qualifies as the restaurant's de facto Sunday hangover remedy.

Even more interesting – and more colorful – was something called "Scotty's green eggs and yams" ($10), named after onetime sous chef Scott Ostrander, who went from the Red Rabbit to a kitchen job at one of the world's greatest restaurants, Alinea in Chicago.

This Dr.-Seuss-pun-of-a-dish involves shredding sweet potatoes, cooking them down, baking them off, coating them in parmesan and then roasting. The bright-green sauce for the eggs is actually hollandaise mixed with spinach that has been blanched and puréed.

It's that kind of cleverness, and those kinds of dishes, that have begun to shape and define the Red Rabbit.

Craft cocktails such as the tart "gin gin mule" with ample leaves of fresh mint and ginger beer, and a surprise hit called "Krakow salt mine" that combines zubrowka, apple cider, lemon and ginger beer (with salt), help make the bar menu a contender for best in town.

The craft beer choices include local offerings from Track 7, Berryessa Gap and Ruhstaller. The small wine list seemed limited and pricey. Which peasant food, for instance, should we order with the $100 bottle of cabernet sauvignon from Caymus?

Still, the menus, and the concept, continue to evolve. So far, the globally inspired, local, sustainable, peasant-food-meets-fine-dining kind of cooking may not have bowled us over, but it has certainly won us over.


2718 J St., Sacramento

(916) 706-2275

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday to Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar with emphasis on craft cocktails

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Noise level: Moderate

Overall ★ ★ ★ (out of 4 stars)

With its stylish urban setting, excellent hours, thoughtful cooking and inspiring craft cocktail program, the Red Rabbit has become a crowd-pleaser as it prepares to celebrate its one-year anniversary. To climb even higher, it might have to loosen up its quaint but confining concept and let the talented folks push their creative boundaries.

Food ★ ★ 1/2

Our favorite dining experiences here involved classic dishes made with new twists, like the tender pork osso bucco (and later, the braised lamb shank) with creamy polenta, the farro risotto with broccolini and tofu, the green eggs and yams for brunch, and a sweet and salty candy bar pie. The dishes that didn't stack up tended to be the ones that other places already do better, such as tacos and ramen. The cocktails are made from scratch and show both skill and wit.

Service ★ ★ ★

Servers here range from good to great. They're prompt, attentive, knowledgeable and friendly.

Ambience ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Hard to believe this used to be a Radio Shack, followed by a seemingly jinxed restaurant locale. With exposed brick walls, a massive bar, nice lighting and an overall warmth to the room, the Rabbit vibe is both elegant and energized.

Value ★ ★ ★

The quality, portion size and prices all stack up nicely, though we wish the wine list was a little broader and offered a few more inexpensive (i.e. $6) selections by the glass.