Carla Meyer

Dining review: Formoli’s Bistro nearly great, and getting better

At dinner, guests are served an amuse bouche at the beginning of service.
At dinner, guests are served an amuse bouche at the beginning of service. Bee staff

In May 2009, I introduced many of you to an unheralded but ambitious 29-year-old chef and a largely unsung little restaurant in East Sacramento called Formoli’s Bistro.

I told you how Aimal Formoli and his wife, Suzanne Ricci, saved and sacrificed until they had enough money to fulfill a dream and open their own place. I went on about the superb service, cool and lively vibe and the wonderful food, including a “whiskey burger” that would soon become famous among local aficionados, scallops that were seared and seasoned with aplomb, and mussels served with a hearty and delicious broth made with red wine and tomatoes.

Then the bistro moved several blocks up J Street to a location with more tables and a patio out front. The idea was to grow, but there were, indeed, growing pains. The magic of the original location, cramped as it was and decorated in shabby chic, was difficult to duplicate in this open-air space, and the chef was pushing to take his food to new heights.

Sometimes, Formoli the chef and Formoli the businessman had their clashes. The former wanted to push the envelope with edgy dishes that stepped out of the mainstream, while the latter knew the food had to sell and the restaurant needed to make money. At one point, Formoli decided to take his now-coveted burger off the dinner menu, only to face a rather ferocious backlash on Yelp.

He didn’t take it very well. In 2012, he couldn’t contain himself when he responded to an anonymous Yelp detractor. Your parents should be ashamed you were ever born and they have to take you out to dinner !!!!!!!

Yes, he used seven exclamation points. When I caught up with him back then and asked about Yelp-gate, Formoli said, “I’m just going to put my head down and keep going. This is my city, I have some ideas, and I’m not going to let Yelp stop me.”

In reviewing Formoli’s this second time, we had several questions to consider during three recent visits. Had the restaurant shown growth and improvement from 2009 when it earned three out of four stars? Definitely. Was the chef doing things that put him among the top rank of chefs? For sure. And most importantly, would Formoli’s Bistro be considered one the area’s very best restaurants and be good enough to receive four stars? That’s where we have to tread very carefully.

Ratings and stars are largely a matter of reporting and comparing with the competition. Formoli’s is in the toughest category going – casual, upscale dining. Four stars in this category doesn’t necessarily mean you are perfect, but it mandates that your restaurant has no significant weaknesses.

Formoli’s appetizers and small plates are first-rate and have plenty of personality. The Peruvian-inspired poutine with flat iron steak, French fries and fromage blanc is the latest interpretation of this dastardly-yet-delicious blue-collar hangover cure.

This version was upscale, wonderfully presented and absolutely delicious, with tender slices of steak and dollops of tangy white cheese. While the steak was coated in a fiery sauce, there was no gravy, a traditional part of the dish. But without it, the fries did not become soggy and unsightly. Several other appetizers are also noteworthy, including the dates stuffed with goat cheese and pancetta.

For main entrees, the spaghetti with clams is delicious and satisfying, featuring an abundance of romesco cream sauce that showed the kitchen’s embrace of classic dishes while highlighting its wonderful sense of flavors and astute touch with seasoning. The pork chop with harissa, a North African sauce that packs a lively and balanced wallop of heat, is outstanding, though not quite as good as the one we had at Carpe Vino or the double-cut behemoth at Mulvaney’s.

The roasted chicken, so simple-sounding on the menu that any respectable foodie would dismiss it as too basic and banal, is the embodiment of greatness – seasoned with salt and pepper and a pinch of panache that took assertiveness right to the edge. This is a dish foodies could embrace, for it shows how something so simple can be elevated with great product and technique, including a 24-hour brine.

Like the roasted chicken, the salmon dish is a marvel of quality product, cooked with good care and served with corn, avocado and a sun-dried-tomato oil. The roasted whole trout from Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse, offered recently as a nightly special, is also excellent.

But the real star at Formoli’s isn’t necessarily the beef, poultry or seafood. It’s the vegetables. In 2012, I wrote about how Formoli had been taking his staff to a biodynamic vegetable plot in the Napa Valley to pick organic vegetables for the restaurant. It was a three-hour round trip simply to make a statement to his customers that quality, freshness and seasonality are paramount.

With nearly every entree, vegetables are an exciting and lively component, a mix of colors and shapes and textures, brimming with flavor, and seasoned with a variety of fresh-cut herbs: corn, tomatoes, squash, beets and lettuces done with authority and passion.

The lunch menu, while simpler than dinner’s, also shows that Formoli’s is a cut above. There were two burger options when we visited, the whiskey burger and a newer offering, the peppery, spicy chorizo burger, which is superb and just a touch intense. The pulled-pork sandwich was also a standout. It is braised in citrus and ale, and those flavors pop when you bite into this large and juicy sandwich.

Oddly, the house-made ketchup was a distraction, tasting more like watery cocktail sauce. And the soup one day, a beer and cheese concoction, didn’t work. The elements started to separate and the texture was grainy.

The real shortcoming at Formoli’s, however, reveals itself only if you’ve powered through the wonderful appetizers, shared plates and main dishes and still have room for something sweet.

By and large, the dessert offerings simply don’t stack up to the rest of the menu. The Nutella blondie was over-baked, dry and bland. The fruit crostada was too much ho-hum crust and not enough fruit.

And one night, when a friend ordered the pumpkin pie, we anticipated something thick and rich, only to find an undersized slice of under-seasoned sadness staring back at us.

Those final impressions left me in a quandary. Formoli’s is a four-star restaurant waiting to happen. Its 56-bottle wine list is diverse and entertaining. Its cooking is largely first-rate. There’s even a special chef’s table prix fixe for those looking to be surprised and delighted with edgier and more challenging riffs. It’s seven courses for $120, wine included, and must be booked in advance.

But I’m going to let Formoli’s own words back in 2009 be the deciding factor. “One of the things I hope to accomplish in my career is to set the bar a little higher and get people to expect a little more,” he said.

While Sacramento’s dining scene has evolved in the eight years Formoli’s has been in business, this modest bistro has grown even more. Were it not for those mediocre desserts and minuscule missteps, it would be vying for a spot as a top-10 restaurant.

For now, it’s very good – and very close. Because Formoli is so talented and his staff so professional, I’ve set the bar higher, and I expect just a bit more in the months and years ahead.

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

Formoli’s Bistro

3839 J St.

Sacramento

(916) 448-5699

www.formolisbistro

Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m.

Beverage options: Varied and well-balanced wine list, with many of the 56 selections available by the glass; modest craft beer list.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes. And the chef is happy to take requests not found on the menu.

Gluten-free options: Inquire.

Noise level: Moderate to loud.

Ambiance: Often lively in an open dining room; outdoor patio along the sidewalk.

Overall: 1/2

Very good to exceptional cooking, a nice wine list, superb service and a friendly neighborhood vibe all add up to a restaurant that continues to get better.

Food: 1/2

The cooking combines classic techniques, farm-to-fork sourcing at its best, creative touches to simple-seeming dishes and, more than anything, spot-on flavors throughout the menu. Recommended dishes included the whiskey burger, chorizo burger, spaghetti and clams, pork chop and seared scallops. Desserts did not stack up to the rest of the menu.

Service:

Formoli’s is the only restaurant to have three different people make my annual list of best servers. It’s one of its great strengths, balancing a casual approach with attentiveness and knowledge.

Value:

Seafood and poultry dishes priced in the low $20s. For the quality, it’s an excellent value. So are the wines, available by the bottle or the glass. The desserts are all $9 and that’s the only area that felt a tad high.

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