Carla Meyer

Dining review: Grange now rates as one of Sacramento’s finest eateries

Grilled salmon is served with local barley at Grange.
Grilled salmon is served with local barley at Grange. Bee staff

In the nearly six years Grange has been open, this restaurant at downtown’s Citizen Hotel has always been high-minded and beautiful, with an emphasis on farm-to-fork fine dining that showcases the seasonal bounty of our region.

It just hasn’t always realized its potential, sometimes due to miscues with the food, but more often because the front-of-the-house staff never quite stacked up to what was coming out of the kitchen.

We first reviewed Grange in early 2009, not long after it opened, when Michael Tuohy was the executive chef. Those initial visits were marked by good but pricey food and sometimes glaringly amateurish service. We took a new look in the spring of 2012, not long after Tuohy moved on and Englishman Oliver Ridgeway took the helm. We’re making an updated assessment because the restaurant is now definitively Ridgeway’s, and it has clearly gotten better in every way that matters.

Some of the best food in town is coming out of a kitchen run by a man whose accent says he is clearly not from here. Three years after arriving in Sacramento, Ridgeway, British patois and all, has made the city his home, and he’s expressing what we’re all about through food that is vivid, inviting and sincere.

If you’re tempted to think that Sacramento’s farm-to-fork thing is a superficial attempt at branding and marketing, you haven’t taken a good look at the wonderfully evocative dishes Ridgeway has been creating. Farm to fork can be a crutch. It can be a hollow slogan. But it can also be a standard by which a talented chef begins his creative process.

If, in the past, I’ve been too enthralled by the restaurant’s impressive architectural elements and too put off by distracting service ailments, I’m now convinced that Ridgeway is one of Sacramento’s most skilled chefs and that the current three-star rating is no longer an accurate reflection of what Grange is all about.

Ridgeway’s food is beautiful but not derivative. It’s farm to fork without laziness or affectation. It’s colorful, loaded with flavor, bolstered by technique and thoughtfully realized. Adding to the challenge is that Grange is a hotel restaurant, meaning it doesn’t have the option of closing on Mondays to retool or forgoing lunch on the weekends for a breather. It’s seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner, with brunch on the weekends.

I recently visited Grange for each type of meal and found the restaurant operating at a consistently high level, including service that is more poised and professional than ever. In fact, there is likely no other restaurant in town that handles such a schedule with the acumen of Ridgeway and company. Its setting – tall windows, high ceilings, urban-industrial refinement – is also inspiring.

Let’s start with weekend brunch. The smoked chicken hash ($14) is a wonderful dish – two eggs poached medium nestled on a kaleidoscope of sautéed sweet potatoes, Yukon potatoes, onions, two kinds of peppers, fresh green onions and ample pieces of chicken. Ridgeway says the birds have been brined 24 hours and smoked for four, then the tender meat is pulled off the bone. Tying it all together is an assertive chipotle hollandaise sauce that makes the dish something special – a spicy heat that will make you gasp in just the right way.

Lunches have been first-rate for quite some time at Grange, and my recent lunch was as good as any around. The pan-seared king salmon, with a crispy skin left on, was thick and delicious, and seasoned with care. The fish is set atop a bed of chewy, locally grown barley.

But the best way to see Ridgeway at his most enthusiastic and expressive is at dinner. The way he brings so much balance and character to each dish makes his style especially engaging. It’s Sacramento and Ridgeway on full display. It’s rustic. It’s elegant. It’s all very real. There’s nothing extra on the plate – no fillers, no decorations. Everything you see can be devoured.

For instance, the chicken dish ($27) billboards a chef’s smarts and his kitchen’s skill. It’s de-boned, then marinaded in a mix of, among other things, garlic, thyme and parsley. The well-seasoned bird is then cooked crisp, its meat tender and juicy. It’s set atop a puree of smoked butternut squash. Artichokes cooked with lemon also make an appearance. Topping it all is thinly sliced fennel – lots of it – bringing brightness and additional texture. Then there are pickled grapes scattered about the plate.

The Grange pork chop ($28) is right up there, too. It’s brined in apple cider, vinegar, cloves, cinnamon, chili flakes and whole oranges. The meat, submerged and chilled for 24 to 36 hours, absorbs the liquid and plumps. Because pork can be so mild, this is an excellent way to bring flavor through this entire thick cut, with each bite revealing a thrilling sense of autumn.

This dish is actually Ridgeway’s take on homey pork and beans, and the black-eyed peas nearly steal the show. They’re prepared with bacon, molasses, sherry vinegar, celery, and onions and cooked until tender. You end up with boldly sweet flavors counterbalanced by smoky, meaty notes. If I were to quibble, I thought the crust of the pork chop needed a sprinkling of finishing salt to pull the flavors together.

A high-profile hotel restaurant has to have a steak on the menu, but Ridgeway doesn’t make his predictable. It’s an oversized grass-fed New York cut from Storm Hill ($42), a multifarm cooperative similar to Niman Ranch. Our steak was grilled precisely to medium-rare, and it was a beautiful piece of beef, charred and crusty on the outside, rosy-red in the middle.

The Grange kitchen renders the fat from the steak and reserves it for various applications. In this instance, it’s used to cook carrots and pearl onions until they are supple. Then they are crisped before serving. There is also a broccoli puree with a touch of mascarpone and sharp cheddar. The steak is topped with a salsa verde made with gypsy peppers, chopped peppers, cornichons, capers, olive oil and red wine vinegar. The tiny leaves from the broccoli stems are flash-fried and used as a garnish, though it would be a shame not to eat them.

The menu changes frequently depending on the seasons and what the kitchen hopes to express. But based on what Ridgeway has shown so far, you can be confident that the quality and creativity will not waver.

Beyond the savory dishes are some excellent desserts. One worth highlighting is the delicious malt custard made with beer from local brewery Ruhstaller. Turns out, Ridgeway has collaborated with Ruhstaller to make a beer dubbed “Dirt,” which is expected to be released soon.

Also worth singling out at Grange is the superb bar, led by the talented and enterprising Ryan Seng, whose cocktail menu includes innovations unique to Grange, along with his take on classics. The bar also does a series of seasonal mixed drinks that change with the calendar and, just as Ridgeway does with the food, have a very Sacramento feel to them, such as a Chili Pomegranate with tequila and house curacao, and a Pear Clove Side Car with cognac.

When you add it all up – the chef, the setting, the staff, the bar program – you see a restaurant that is more Sacramento than it’s ever been.

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

Grange

926 J St.

Sacramento

(916) 492-4450

www.grangesacramento.com

Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6:30 a.m to midnight Friday; 8 a.m to midnight Saturday; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar. Wine list is expansive and features a very California inventory with various price points and some wines by the glass. Craft beer selection is small, a bit light on local breweries and could be improved. Cocktails are outstanding.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Noise level: Moderate.

Overall (out of 4 stars)

In an elegant, lively setting downtown, Grange is better than ever. Executive chef Oliver Ridgeway’s food is a wonderful representation of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork ethos done with skill, creativity and sincerity. The supporting cast brings it all together. In the past, Grange has sometimes fallen short of expectations. Now it is clearly one of the region’s very best restaurants.

Food

While there are several superb restaurants that use local produce in profound ways, Ridgeway has a robust, elegant and savvy style that distinguishes both his restaurant and this city. Lunches and breakfasts are worth trying also. There is always a vegetarian dish that doesn’t shortchange those who want to go meatless.

Service 1/2

Service is more polished and consistent than it has ever been. The knowledge of the menu is impressive. Servers are also adept at discussing wine and beer and make recommendations for pairings.

Ambiance 1/2

One of the best-looking dining rooms in town. It can be full of energy and still have an elegance to it if you’re celebrating a special occasion or looking for something romantic. The touchscreen computer station in the middle of the dining room continues to be a distraction. So is the cutlery station near the kitchen that tends to distract the nearby tables.

Value

For many, these are special-occasion prices. Dinner for two can be more than $100. There are many ways to dine here, from small plates or salads, sharing multiple dishes or having a full dinner with entrees that sometimes climb above $40. The quality of the cooking and ingredients is first-rate.

Noteworthy: Reservations are recommended. If you want an easy introduction to Grange, try happy hour (weekdays 3-6 p.m.): Get a cocktail and some small plates of food.

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