Carla Meyer

Dining review: Try downtown's Trio to find out how good it is

On a recent visit to Trio, a chronically underappreciated downtown restaurant, we were with an out-of-town friend.

We know what she likes - and this wouldn't be it, at least on paper.

At the entrance, we let it slip that the food here wasn't exactly mainstream, that the owner was from Turkey and her cooking, her palate, her way with seasonings, was unlike anything else in the city.

It was Turkish-Mediterranean fare with plenty of fusion and all kinds of twists, resulting in a multitude of exotically flavored dishes that seem at once elusive and comforting.

In other words, it's an adventure, and a richly rewarding one.

"Not for me," our friend said, stopping in her tracks. "Let's go somewhere else."

Just give it a chance, we urged, confident in the power of this cooking to win over those who tend to play it safe.

Besides, you're not paying.

We walked in, grabbed a table and looked around. The place was practically empty. Given the caliber of the food, the line should be out the door and down J Street. Yet, our friend's reluctance helped me realize that this restaurant is overlooked in part because of image issues.

Open for about nine months, Trio has a name that could mean anything and an upscale, modern look that could be anything but what it is now - a creative, exotic and expressive bistro where the owner cooks the food, grows the herbs and vegetables in her home garden, and sometimes even takes your order.

That said, it's a neighborhood restaurant - the kind of place you'd want to walk or ride your bike to - but it's in a part of town with office buildings where few folks actually live.

The owner is Gönül Blum, a former cardiac nurse turned restaurateur, lifelong fitness buff and obsessive-compulsive chef who has a truly special way with building and balancing flavors. Her fans know her from Gönül's J Street Cafe, the restaurant she owned for seven years in east Sacramento.

Her touch is apparent from the outset of the meal when the freshly baked pita arrives with a dipping sauce that looks so simple but turns out to be this great melding of disparate elements - Dijon mustard, jalapeños, duck pâté, a plethora of fresh herbs.

It's soothing, complex, original.

Halfway through the bread and the dip, our friend was no longer protesting. We ordered a pizetta, a small pizza with a pita-bread style crust, puffy and tender. We had soup, a butternut squash that was much more interesting and nuanced than those pleasantly sweet but straightforward versions found all over town. We had various salads and they didn't disappoint, either.

The roasted carrot and avocado salad ($9) was amazing for a starter course - there was so much going on here, including frisee and sorrel straight from Gönül's garden, ample shallots, tender carrots and a wonderful citrusy dressing made with two housemade marmalades (lemon and orange), Dijon, tahini, lemon juice and maple syrup.

The tabbouleh salad ($8) was only slightly more familiar and, thus, traditional, with bulgur wheat atop a plate of fresh garden greens with an ample sprinkling of feta cheese.

Perhaps the best appetizer of all is the eggplant Napoleon ($9). In the hands of a lesser talent, a dish like this could come off convoluted. But Blum continues to amaze, with layers of grilled eggplant, breadcrumbs, provolone, tomatoes, carrots, shallots, heirloom tomato sauce, white wine sauce and mozzarella. It's an excellent start to the meal as well as an introduction to Blum's approach to food.

For something a little more subtle, try the Vidalia onion and wild fennel fritters - onions in an extremely light batter, fried golden brown, and served with a housemade yogurt and delicious carrots split lengthwise.

What kind of a chef does this? Dreams up dishes? Curves around classics? Builds layers of flavors both bold and subtle?

Blum is high energy. She's a tinkerer, a creator. She's obsessive. In her mid-50s, she runs eight miles a day. She does yoga. She gardens. She plays tennis. Sometimes, she'll run from her home in Arden Oaks to the restaurant downtown, work all day, then run home - that's 20 miles, bookending plenty of good cooking.

The large plates afford Blum even more room to tweak and twist and build. What could she do with meatloaf? Remember that friend who wanted to bail at the front door? Picture her now, raving about this meatloaf that's unlike anything she's ever tasted.

Maybe it's the underpinning of sumac, which gives the meat such an assertive and exotic flavor. Then there's saffron, which adds another layer of taste, along with ground ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, dried mustard, citrus marmalades and, in a recurring role at Trio, Marash pepper paste, a complex condiment from Blum's hometown in Turkey.

All of which could explain why this beef dish paired so nicely with a crisp chardonnay from Argentina.

The gnocchi, such a familiar dish on many a restaurant menu, is another singular achievement here - made with garlic, lemon verbena, lemon balm, dried oregano, more of that sumac and Marash pepper paste, lemon juice, potatoes and a mixed-herb pesto that's vastly different than the basil-and-olive-oil pesto we're used to.

This is a rich-seeming dish, though Blum uses only a touch of cream in the sauce. The overall result is an entree that's new and exciting, with a wide array of flavors working in harmony.

The rack of lamb ($24) goes in a different direction. With such a cut of meat, there's little need to fuss it up or overwhelm its subtleties. It's served with polenta and a parsley sauce. Ours was perfectly cooked medium-rare and very tender.

On another occasion, I enjoyed a far different lamb dish called "Tagine of Lamb" ($18), essentially a stew that shows off Blum's lively style. She'll improvise here, seasoning and tasting as she cooks, tossing in herbs from her garden. So expect this dish to change with the seasons.

The same could be said for the moussaka ($14), a classic vegetarian dish with a white-wine-and-Dijon sauce in which eggplant is the star. Blum says this entree will be at its peak this summer when eggplant is in season. That said, the moussaka I had on my third recent visit was very good - thick slices of eggplant, melted cheese and another wonderful sauce made with white wine and mustard.

That same night, we also had the turlu ($17), a stew with chicken and meatballs, herbs and spices, and yet another nuanced sauce of coconut milk and curry.

By then, our reluctant friend was home in San Jose telling her friends about her new favorite Sacramento restaurant. And we were reminded how good this place can be - a one-of-a-kind adventure in flavor, still largely undiscovered.

Trio Restaurant Bakery Market

826 J St., Sacramento

(916) 444-7454

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Beverage options: Beer and wine

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Noise level:Quiet

Overall: Three stars (out of four stars)

Don't be fooled by the crowds (and the fact they're not here yet). Trio is still struggling to get the right message out that it serves delicious food prepared with creative flair and exotic twists. Gönül Blum, the owner-chef, has great command of flavors. When this place finds its footing and starts to come alive, it will be an entertaining and meaningful dining experience.

Food: Three stars

If you like cooking that is complex, approachable and exotic, you'll be a big fan of Blum, whose artistic side shines through in dish after dish. She builds layers of flavor, often with fresh herbs from her garden, until it all comes together in harmonious balance on the plate.

Recommended dishes include eggplant Napoleon, onion and fennel fritters, roasted carrot and avocado salad, stuffed chicken, the rack of lamb with polenta, moussaka, and the excellent and unusual meatloaf. The small wine list emphasizes affordable options.

Service: Three stars

Though we didn't see the servers battle-tested on a busy night, we found the service professional, friendly and knowledgeable.

Ambience: Two stars

The room deserves to be livelier and more fun to keep pace with the food. The modern-yet-impersonal look is largely the same as the previous tenant, Table 260. Trio could put its own stamp on the décor.

Value: Three stars

You can eat well here at a relative bargain. Very nice appetizers are less than $10, and most large entrees are less than $20.

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter