Preserve Public House in Winters is an intriguing mix of old soul, forward thinking and classic style.
Its exceptional setting features a décor that combines elements urban, country and industrial. There is an eye-popping array of hand-built furnishings that were once something else and have been re-purposed, including a great-looking custom bar in the dining area and a rusty old delivery van on the back patio that is not only a decorative focal point, but doubles as a planter box where the restaurant’s herbs are grown.
Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Cole and Sara Ogando, Preserve opened in March 2011 in Winters’ lovely downtown village area, home to several appealing restaurants, including the acclaimed Buckhorn Steakhouse, tapas place Ficelle, and the Putah Creak Cafe, which was making pizzas street-side in a wood-burning oven when I visited on a recent weeknight.
Preserve’s menu, like its décor, is equal parts old school and thoughtfully progressive. There are cheese and charcuterie platters for $10, $12 and $16; two stylish and delicious salads for $10; and thin-crust personal-sized pizzas for $12 and $14. There’s also a variety of small plates that are best for sharing or, if you prefer, combining and putting together an eclectic dinner.
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The menu options for the main dishes are inviting and affordable; they include arancini (deep-fried risotto), bone marrow with chimichurri sauce, mussels in a white wine and blue cheese sauce and chicken tostadas with a jalapeño salsa and bacon-wrapped dates. There’s also a selection of lively bar snacks (think flavored nuts, marinated olives and piquillo peppers).
What you won’t find are big-ticket items – no thick-cut pork chop or rib eye or plate of seared scallops. While there are beef sliders (mini burgers), there isn’t a giant, juicy, gourmet hamburger like we might find at many of the best restaurants these days.
During our first visit – an evening when the mercury climbed past 100 degrees – we sought food that was cool and comfortable for the first course, and we took advantage of the restaurant’s smartly curated selection of local and regional craft beers to come up with some nice food-beer pairings.
The green bean salad may be the best dish on the menu – and for $10, it’s a great bargain. This is a cold salad featuring al dente green beans, ample amounts of paper-thin prosciutto, walnuts, roasted tomatoes and, best of all during the sweltering days of summer, thick, chilled, stark-white dollops of creamy and mild-tasting burrata cheese. Arranged with a good bit of finesse on a rectangular plate, this is a visually appealing dish that tastes even better. The asparagus salad, served with a poached egg and garnished with a Parmesan crisp, is also worth trying.
With the green bean salad, along with an appetizer featuring Preserve’s best-known item – the jalapeño jelly – I enjoyed a Dry Hop Lager by Sudwerk Brewing in nearby Davis. Preserve has 21 tap handles, and the selection changes frequently. The restaurant’s website keeps an updated list of what’s on tap. It recently featured four selections from the excellent local craft brewery, Berryessa Brewing; three from Drake’s in the Bay Area; Knee Deep’s coveted (and notoriously hoppy) Simtra triple IPA; and a beer from Danish phenom Mikkeller’s experimental yeast series.
The small wine list focuses on local and regional labels, including Berryessa Gap, along with a few imports from Spain and Italy, all at reasonable prices.
That bright-green jalapeño jelly is a must-try item at Preserve. In fact, the restaurant is known for preserving a wide variety of local and seasonal fruits and vegetables, and this delicious jelly – sweet, gently peppery and spicy without being tongue-scalding hot – was the first item to be preserved and sold by the restaurant. It made its first appearance on the lunch menu as the provocative condiment for the grilled cheese sandwich. The original recipe is by Cole Ogando’s grandmother, Regina.
The jalapeño jelly, when ordered from the “Bar snacks” part of the menu, is served with crusty Acme bread and local cheese. Made by “in-house preservist” Keren Ram, it is available for sale in jars at the front of the restaurant, along with several other kinds of preserves that change seasonally.
The arancini at Preserve is an elegant and technique-heavy snack. They are essentially deep-fried rice balls, a recipe that originated in Sicily centuries ago. The best-known version in the Sacramento area is at the Press Bistro, where owner/chef David English has mastered this dish. Preserve’s arancini features mushroom risotto that has been battered and deep-fried to a glorious brown. Then the rice balls are plated on a bed of mushroom purée. It’s an excellent dish, at once earthy, salty, crisp and tender.
The chicken tostadas were surprisingly good. The shredded chicken was served atop sturdy corn tortillas, elegantly assembled with tomato, garlic and jalapeño salsa. The aesthetic is also inspiring – the tostadas arrive on a rustic wooden plank that has the same look and feel of the stylish restaurant.
Despite many enticing menu items – including the charcuterie and cheese plate – some didn’t work quite as well, including the bone marrow, which became popular a few years back in Sacramento thanks to Ella Dining Room & Bar and then Kru.
Preserve’s roasted bone marrow shows potential, with caramelized onions to enhance the rich, roasted flavor, and micro cilantro and a chimichurri sauce to counterbalance the marrow’s buttery richness. The only problem was that the bone marrow itself was lacking – there wasn’t enough of it in the bone. It’s a problem I’ve experienced elsewhere, one that can be addressed by carefully scrutinizing which bones are ample enough for dinner service and which should be set aside for Fido.
There are two pizzas on the menu, a standard offering with tomato sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan and basil; and a daily special that changes regularly. While the sauce was flavorful, the thin crust fell just short, lacking a bit of character and texture that would make the pie more enjoyable.
Desserts at Preserve are very good, including a delicious coffee-flavored panna cotta served in a tall glass and topped with whipped cream, and a thick slice of cheesecake with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and cleverly garnished with toasted marshmallows.
While it may not offer those expected marquee entrees, Preserve has designed an engaging eating experience with very good prices. Coupled with the savvy beer and wine options, it’s a solid bet and another good excuse for visiting the charming town of Winters.
Preserve Public House
200 Railroad Ave.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (lunch) and 4-8:30 p.m. (dinner); Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5-9:15 p.m.
Beverage options: Full bar; emphasis on local and regional wines and craft beer
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to lively
Ambiance: Stylish blend of country, industrial and a touch of shabby chic in a large open dining area and bar with a nice patio in the back
Overall * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars)
With an eclectic menu that focuses on small plates, Preserve is a good bet for a meal where sharing multiple dishes is the emphasis. The beer selection on tap is very good, and there are plenty of reasonably priced wines by the glass.
Food * * 1/2
Highlights include an excellent and artfully presented green bean salad with burrata; the arancini (deep-fried rice balls) with a mushroom sauce; chicken tostadas, and the jalapeño jelly served with crusty bread. The pizza is decent but not especially distinctive; and the bone marrow is good in concept but lacking in execution.
Service * * *
Servers were attentive, personable and sincere.
Value * * *
The prices are excellent. Though the portions are generally considered small plates, most items on the menu are $10 to $12 and, even when combining multiple dishes to put together a full meal, represent good value.