Carla Meyer

Dining: Aïoli may be set in its ways, but in a good way

Step inside this charming midtown mainstay with the burlap tablecloths, gorgeous copper-topped little bar and big windows looking out toward the street, and you are expected to make yourself at home, relaxed and unhurried for as long as you care to stay.

It’s an easy thing to do, starting with the food: mussels in white wine; spicy chorizo served with white beans and Swiss chard; oh-so-tender short ribs braised to a deep reddish brown; delicate, briny and garlicky anchovies nestled on thick slices of bread; and a beautiful paella with those telltale crispy edges that take a good 30 minutes of cooking to get right.

There’s more to it than food, however. Aïoli has mastered the art of the dining experience in a very special way, complete with charm, polish and eccentricities. Brimming with all that is old-school and nothing that is newfangled or trendy, this Spanish tapas restaurant marries food, wine, service, setting and all kinds of intangibles into something that only gets better with each visit.

You don’t necessarily judge Aïoli by your first time here because, like a good relationship or a fine pair of shoes, there is a break-in period. In fact, my first visit years ago was a disappointment, due in part to my own clunky navigation of the imposing menu. I took a stab at it, ordered haphazardly and wound up with too many cold dishes for my liking and too many flavors that seemed repetitive rather than complimentary.

The way to embrace Aïoli is to go and return and eventually slot in as a regular, as if coming back to a second home where all your needs are anticipated. You’ll soon become friends with the entire staff. You’ll get hugs from the owner. You’ll sit at your favorite table. You’ll go through the menu backward and forward, trying new things and returning to old favorites.

Since it opened in 1994 with the idea of being both an upscale and casual place for tapas, Aïoli has seen much change on its block and throughout the neighborhood.

The view out the large front windows used to be of a big hole in the ground across L Street. Now it’s upscale mixed-use apartments and eateries. Next door to Aïoli was for years an empty lot overrun with grass and weeds. Now it’s high-end loft apartments with $1 million penthouses. Around the corner was a once-elegant but rundown and empty car dealership. Now it’s the eye-catching Zocalo, an upscale Mexican restaurant, with wine bar 58 Degrees on one side and the highly regarded The Press Bistro on the other.

What happened to Aïoli during this great spurt of growth and urban renewal?

Absolutely nothing, except that the 9-year-old kid who used to run around the joint and stock the wine, bus the tables and load the dishwasher grew up, went off to college and returned to become one of the truly great young restaurateurs in town. He’s the host. He’s a waiter. He’s encyclopedic about wine. He can talk minutiae about the food. He can answer any question you can conjure about cooking techniques. He’s funny. He’s smart. And he believes in everything Aïoli is all about.

At just 28, Azziz Belarbi-Salah is the personification of the old-school restaurant done right. His parents, Reda Belarbi and Jennifer Sparks, started Aïoli and, following a divorce in 2006, Sparks bowed out of the business. The precocious Belarbi-Salah went off to college, got a degree in cognitive science and then had a choice: venture out into the world and find himself, or embrace the world he already knew, where customers are like his extended family and being at the restaurant just feels right.

What’s the best way to enjoy Aïoli and its vast, possibly confusing menu of tapas, or plates meant for sharing? You could study the menu by item – it’s in Spanish, with English explanations – and go it alone, as I once did rather clumsily, or you could tap the institutional knowledge that is so readily apparent among everyone on staff.

When it comes to tapas, there really is no wrong answer, for any missteps can be quickly remedied by ordering something else. Aïoli’s menu also allows you to order larger entrees and forgo tapas altogether.

Yet, at Aïoli the most engaging experience is to disengage. Let go. Don’t overthink it. Don’t try to control the outcome. Here, it’s important to know when to cede power to the servers. It’s a remarkable service staff, unlike any other in Sacramento. For one, they are all veterans. There are no youngsters earning their way through college, no hipsters, no blank stares when you ask a question or seek advice.

Belarbi-Salah refers to the two most senior servers, Gigi and Jose, as his surrogate uncles. These two men have presence. When they speak, you believe what they tell you. When they enter the dining area, you feel their presence.

“Gigi is one of the most kindhearted people I’ve ever met, and Jose is a cheery old grump,” Belarbi-Salah said with a laugh. “Aïoli is very much a cult of personality.”

In the spirit of the great sushi houses, where discerning customers order “omakase” style and turn over control to the sushi master, Aïoli visitors would do well to trust in the servers and, after a brief discussion about the kind of experience they are seeking, allow the staff to simply start delivering food. Then you can taste and compare notes, pass around more plates and repeat. It’s great fun and it’s an ongoing education.

How, for instance, is the beef tongue so tender? What is the timing and order of ingredients for the perfect paella, and how does one achieve that firm, crisp but tender bottom? What is it about tart slices of apple that works so well on the palate alongside the mild bitterness of the endive?

So the paella is wonderful, including a vegetarian version. And the chorizo is a meaty, spicy and balanced winner. The almond cake is excellent – a light, tender crumb with subtle flavor. The short ribs are superb, tender and rich and fatty as you’ll ever see. The food is very different than Source, the tapas restaurant in Granite Bay, where the cooking is more nuanced, modern and inventive, resulting in dishes that seem like dynamic and distinctive new takes on classics. At Aïoli, it is one classic after the next. There are no updates, no twists, for better or worse.

There is much to admire about the classic approach, especially with the totality of the experience. Break it down into smaller bites, however, and not everything coming out of the kitchen is of equally high caliber.

The octopus tapas, for instance, is a potentially contentious dish, mostly because the familiar chewiness has been cooked completely out of it. It’s presented in thin slices, leaving us with something so tender as to be unrecognizable as octopus. It’s still a dish to enjoy, but at a critical level it left us slightly unsatisfied. Further, the seasoning was too tame compared to some of the livelier small plates, like the hearty juxtaposition of the mejillones (mussels) cooked in white wine, garlic and tomatillo sauce and then served atop a mash of bread and bacala (fish).

The braised beef tongue was a potentially perfect dish. With apologies to the squeamish, chefs and foodies alike consider the tongue to be the greatest expression of deep beef flavor. This dish was cooked beautifully, resulting in a velvety smooth texture I had not enjoyed since the beef tongue of two years ago at Magpie. But unlike that dish, which was seasoned with great care and confidence, the Aïoli dish was underseasoned to the point of being timid, and left me scanning the table for a salt shaker (there wasn’t one).

Nevertheless, those missteps are minor ones on an eclectic and often richly satisfying menu where there is so much to appreciate. Combined with the tremendous assets of Belarbi-Salah and a staff of old-school pros, Aïoli continues to ignore the trends to provide one of the most endearing restaurant experiences in town.