Carla Meyer

Dining Review: Missed connections and sub-par food at Sloughhouse Inn

The Sloughhouse Inn, nestled in the midst of a rural landscape rich in history and abundant in its agricultural bounty, is attempting a comeback.

But this once-proud destination restaurant, which used to boast a clientele of area ranchers and customers from Sacramento and beyond for both special occasions and just-because dining before it closed in 2006, is these days, with new ownership and a modestly retooled concept, missing the mark in so many ways. The cumulative effect adds up to an opportunity significantly squandered.

The previous version of this restaurant enjoyed a long and prosperous run. The menu was all-American fare, heavy on meat, and the bartenders knew how to mix a good drink. It was not uncommon to see men and women in Western garb with spurs on their boots. It was often packed and humming with energy.

The latest iteration opened a year ago and is a shadow of what used to be. Never mind high-minded ideas such as connecting to a time and place. The Sloughhouse Inn, with sub-par food, a ho-hum menu, a sad beer list and all kinds of service missteps, isn’t even getting the basics right.

The most unfortunate part of this equation is how this restaurant is failing to notice opportunities to showcase what’s potentially vital about the area.

For instance, Sacramento and its top restaurants have worked tirelessly in recent years to create and promote a collective identity as a farm-to-fork capital. That’s a potentially vivid identity for the entire region. That would include Sloughhouse, best known these days for its sweet corn.

And yet the produce at the Sloughhouse Inn during our visits showed no sense of seasonality. They were entirely bland and, instead of the freshness and wealth of colors we see coming out of the region’s best kitchens, seemed more like factory-cut, frozen vegetables that had simply been thawed, heated and plunked down on the plate.

Should we be surprised that the manager told me he had never heard of the “farm-to-fork” campaign? That’s a glaring, if not unfathomable, oversight.

Not only does sparsely populated and all-but-forgotten Sloughhouse have historical ties to the Miwok Indians and the Gold Rush era, it was for many years a powerful force in the growing of hops.

Just off the back of the Sloughhouse Inn sits a hop kiln. On the vast acreage beyond, once upon a time, grew thousands of acres of hops, making the Signorotti Ranch and other hop growers world leaders in hop production up to Prohibition. While the proliferation of sweet corn here dates only to 1972, when Ed Davis planted the crops that his sons harvested and delivered it to the Davis Ranch vegetable stand by motorcycle, the hops go back a century or more, once growing on trellises 20 feet high.

And yet this contemporary restaurant fails to connect to this incredible piece of history. It also seems disconnected from the region’s craft beer boom. The beer selection at the Sloughhouse Inn was disappointing, with a relatively lackluster Big Daddy IPA the lone India pale ale available. There was no evidence the restaurant wants to serve good local beer. By contrast, the wine list at least shows an appreciation for emerging wineries in the region, with a small but balanced selection of reds and whites from Lodi and Clarksburg to the Shenendoah Valley.

Disappointing as the beer selection may be, ignoring obvious assets doesn’t necessarily doom a restaurant to failure. The real problem with Sloughhouse Inn is its inability to execute the basics of service and cooking at a high enough level to be considered a quality restaurant. At this point, it cannot be taken seriously as a destination for the 25-minute drive from Sacramento. Nor would it be an inspired choice for a meal on the way to wine tasting in Amador County.

During our first visit, we started with an appetizer sampler ($14), including fried zucchini, chicken wings, fried pickles, and potato skins. As we nibbled and tasted and frowned, I wondered who would be the first to state the obvious: “1988 called. It wants its appetizers back” – a worn-out joke for an anachronistic plate. Yes, this was a tired, badly dated and unappetizing array of appetizers, breaded and then fried, that seemed to hail straight from a bag.

The bone-in grilled pork chop ($22) had an alarming appearance, with grill marks that looked contrived, as if the meat had been cooked and then stamped. The vegetables, limp and mixed together in a mound on the plate, consisted of zucchini, cauliflower and broccoli, all of which were nearly tasteless. The pork itself was the only pleasant surprise of the night. Despite the pale, dried visuals, the meat itself was tender, even juicy, suggesting it had been brined before cooking. Still, the dish was a flop, as the appearance alone showed no signs of quality cooking or presentation. The baked potato was fine.

The spicy Cajun pasta with chicken illustrated the randomness of the menu. There’s nothing Cajun or even Mediterranean about the concept or the cuisine, so this dish would either be a welcome culinary detour – or a jarring misstep. The penne-style pasta was adequate, but the sauce overwhelmed the dish and the spicy heat suggested that was the only element that might be remotely Cajun. It was decent, though the so-called garlic toast was more like a puffy dinner roll with cheese melted on top. There was no sign of garlic flavor.

The worst dish that night, however, was the one that sounded the most promising – and the one that might best connect us to a possible concept we could comprehend. If this rural outpost, with its large, warm and appealing wood paneling finishes on the walls and ceiling, could be a roadhouse-style eatery, wouldn’t this “Texas Whiskey smoked beef brisket” have the potential to be the menu’s star attraction? Don’t get your hopes up.

The meat was unlike any brisket we expected. Instead of something smoky, sweet and tender, we got thin strips of tough, dried-out beef we could barely chew, let alone swallow. The vegetable medley was the same as for the pork chop. But there was no explaining the appearance of “risotto” on the plate. Was this a roadhouse, or a French bistro? Alas, this creamy concoction was nothing like real risotto. The overwhelming flavor notes we could discern: lots of salt, plenty of canned chicken broth.

Our server was friendly enough but simply didn’t have the skill or training to handle our table with aplomb. She forgot drinks. She never mentioned the kitchen was out of bread until we asked. My wine glass sat empty for 40 minutes and she never noticed. Empty plates sat and sat. She forgot to bring dessert menus, and when we inquired, she said she thought she had already asked us.

The next time, the service was marginally better and the food significantly worse, including a pale, nearly colorless piece of salmon that had an obvious off-odor. Alas, it tasted spoiled. And there was more of that failed risotto, which by now was even more overwhelmed by chicken soup flavor.

The rib-eye steak had an unusual color. It wasn’t necessarily pale, but the absence of any char or crusty elements on the surface once again made us suspect what was happening in the kitchen. There were grill marks, but they were too clean and precise. The steak had no seasoning whatsoever. And this, for $29? That’s big-time pricing. But this dish was amateurish in every way.

The fish and chips ($14), we were informed, are one of the most popular dishes. The cod is battered in panko crumbs and fried to a deep golden brown and the thick-cut fries were tasty. Yet it would be a stretch to believe that this dish, as uniform and generic as it appeared to be, was made from scratch in house.

The desserts were no better. The tall slice of cheesecake was fine, but the apple pie was just awful, with a pale, undercooked crust that was more soggy than flaky.

By now, we were lamenting not the opportunities the Sloughhouse Inn had squandered. We were baffled by how even the basics of cooking, service and a cohesive concept had all but eluded this restaurant.