Carla Meyer

Dining review: Magpie’s food excels; space requires adjustment

For Magpie Cafe’s “chicken for two,” the breast is pan-roasted and the dark meat is cooked confit-style.
For Magpie Cafe’s “chicken for two,” the breast is pan-roasted and the dark meat is cooked confit-style. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Familiarity breeds contentment with the new Magpie Cafe.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I visited Magpie, which last summer moved from its original space on R Street to a new, larger one at 16th and P, six times instead of the usual three.

Those circumstances included but were not limited to holiday-break-induced amnesia; 11th-hour goading by devotees of Magpie’s rustic, seasonal cooking to try more of its signature dishes; and hunger.

About that hunger: One day I arrived at Magpie five minutes late for the burger (it’s served only until 4:45 p.m.), for which I specifically had come, but not too late for other menu items. So I tried them, and returned the next day for the burger.

The road to a six-visit restaurant review, though obviously fun for the critic, can be potentially rocky for a restaurant, since more visits mean more chances to slip up. But my Magpie visits revealed remarkably high consistency in food quality and comfortable places to sit in a space I initially found too austere.

Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye, the couple who own Magpie, moved to 16th Street partly for more room: The new restaurant seats 90 rather than 60 and features a much bigger bar as well as a full liquor license (R Street was only beer and wine).

The R Street space, which Magpie had occupied since it opened in 2009 as a catering/restaurant operation and which Roehr and Inouye still run as the bakery/cafe Nido, is small but charming, with exposed natural brick and light wood. The new space, with black tables, black paint on some walls, concrete floors and high, unfinished ceilings, is stark by comparison.

The new site’s interior factors little on warm days when one can sit on the large, inviting patio, with its many wood touches. But our visits, which started just before Thanksgiving and spanned more than a few rainy days, entailed exclusively indoor seating.

The table at which we sat during that first visit, at lunch, was too close to other tables. Limited aisle space made one reluctant to get up to visit the restroom or order another iced tea at the counter (lunch is counter or bar service, and dinner is full service).

But our lunch, including a highly aromatic beef stew, impressed. The “winter BLT” lost nothing, and gained intriguing sweetness, by having the fat, juicy local tomatoes Magpie uses in summer replaced by oven-dried, organic Romas from Mexico.

Delicious food, slightly uncomfortable surroundings – this was the Magpie I knew well from R Street. Granted, I often was picking up food at lunch time, when the space was filled with people in line.

But the old space felt intimate, like I was sharing a discovery with other food lovers. The new space, on this day, did not just lack intimacy but also the roominess that was supposed to be its main selling point.

Thankfully, the seating situation was temporary. When I visited a month or so later, tables were better spaced, and Magpie’s homier touches, such as candles placed on each table at dinner, easier to notice.

The candles offset overhead lighting that can give Magpie the feel of an art gallery, or of a theater with the lights turned up. The lighting improves closer to the restaurant’s northwest corner, and at the bar, where low-hanging light fixtures play off the zinc bar top to create a glow.

Enhancing that glow is Magpie’s “Port of Rye” craft cocktail, a slightly sweet, highly satisfying merger of Bulleit Rye, lemon juice and fennel pollen syrup made by bar manager Charles Roehr (Ed’s brother).

Mid-afternoon restaurant visits can be tricky, especially when one sits at the bar – often ground zero for staff members’ chitchat during this comparatively down time. But my visit to Magpie on a rainy afternoon was close to magical.

There was no chitchat. Magpie’s servers and bartenders are highly professional while maintaining seemingly relaxed demeanors – even at busy times. I’m not sure how they do it; it should be appreciated as an art form.

Looking out the big windows, one could see the cloudy gloom but also the abundant greenery of Fremont Park across the street. This view, combined with Wilco on the sound system and the beards and beanies of Magpie staff members, created an urban Pacific Northwest feel – as if the bar had been transported to Seattle.

Magpie stokes afternoon goodwill with a “happy time” (2:30 to 5) during which cocktails are $2 off and draft beer and wine by the glass $1 off. One also can order some lunch items, including Magpie’s famously addictive mac and cheese ($13), in which sage cheddar and bacon crumbles soften the pungency of Point Reyes blue cheese and bitterness of Brussel sprouts without dulling their flavors.

One can and should order the excellent burger, which is new to this location and already has evolved since the summer. The first burger was bigger, had cheese and was becoming too unwieldy to make for a place that’s not a dedicated burger joint, Roehr said. Diners often wanted to customize, creating 10 different experiences for every 10 burgers.

Magpie now offers one burger experience, which involves a house-baked brioche bun with a dark patch atop it courtesy of a grill flipover. The Niman chuck patty is cooked just past medium, so the salt and char tastes come through prominently. Brightened by mustard aioli and house dill and bread and butter pickles, and then peppered by arugula, this burger’s missing nothing, even with no cheese.

The full bar and burger are the most noticeable additions, so far, to the new Magpie, which still offers staple dishes from R Street (though not all at once, since its seasonal menu changes often). They include the lemon chicken salad, with its luscious lemon vinaigrette that carries a lively citrus tang but also enough oil to penetrate and flavor chicken and greens.

The winter seafood salad, a Louis-style dish new to the menu that contains smoky octopus and densely flavorful “six-minute” eggs, is strikingly good from first bite but extraordinary once the mustard vinaigrette works its way through.

The chicken and potatoes in the Magpie classic “chicken for two” dinner entree tasted overcooked the first time we tried them. But I could not get enough of the sauce below, made via a deglazing process featuring Marsala wine and cider vinegar.

Because so many people swear by the chicken dish – which involves a whole chicken, minus wings, with the breast pan roasted and dark meat cooked confit-style, in duck fat – we tried it again. It was sublime, with light and dark meat equally tender.

Magpie creates a winter-vegetable wonderland within its hearty pot roast dinner entree. Turnip crispness and carrot crunch contrast with the smooth texture of a Yukon-gold potato and squash mash. A side of horseradish spikes vegetables and fatty Niman chuck roast with equal flair.

Chris Woo, who started in the kitchen with Ed Roehr when Magpie opened on R, now is executive chef, with Kelly Hogge and Matt Kramer serving as dinner and day chefs. Magpie’s kitchen is top heavy for its size, Roehr said, so its chefs can have lives instead of wearing themselves out working excessive hours.

Concern for kitchen staff also inspired Magpie’s addition of a tip line, for the kitchen, on customer bills when it started in the new space – a move that prompted some outrage from diners on social media.

But Inouye and Roehr have stuck with this attempt to bridge the historical gap between front- and back-of-the-house workers (server tips can be shared under California law, but within a “chain of service” that can include hosts and bartenders but not kitchen staff).

Ella Dining Room & Bar earlier this month began offering diners the option to designate 5 percent of its tips to the kitchen. Josh Nelson of Selland Family Restaurants said the move was not tied to Magpie but rather to the “national conversation” about wage disparity. But Nelson added, about Magpie, “I admire them for being the first to take that step.”

There always has been much to admire in Roehr and Inouye, who grew up here and attended UC Santa Cruz together before returning to town to start Magpie catering 11 years ago. That company focused on local and seasonal long before the city deemed itself “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.”

They’re progressive thinkers. Such thinking should be supported, and is easy to support, given how good Magpie’s food is. And if one picks the right spots – the bar, the patio during warm months – the setting can be lovely as well.

Magpie Cafe

1601 16th St., Sacramento, www.magpiecafe.com, 916-452-7594

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Friday. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.

Beverage options: Craft cocktails. Compact yet thorough wine list. Draft beers include Auburn Alehouse and Bike Dog offerings.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Ambiance: Magpie gained seats but lost coziness with its move from R Street to 16th and P. But the patio is lovely during warm months and sitting at the bar can be divine.

Overall  1/2

Though the new space could be visually warmer, Magpie’s rustic and seasonally and locally centric food remains as consistently – over six visits – top-notch as always.

Food  1/2

Acclaimed Magpie favorites such as lemon chicken salad and mac and cheese survived the move unchanged. The burger, winter seafood salad and “Port of Rye” cocktail are stellar additions. The signature “chicken for two” was a bust the first time we had it, but excellent the second – an inconsistency worth mentioning because it costs $34.

Service  1/2

Servers are professional yet usually seem relaxed – that’s an art in a busy restaurant. There were a few issues with table cleanup between courses.

Value

Prices ($12 hamburger at lunch, $25 pot-roast dinner entree) are on par with other restaurants around town that specialize in seasonal, local food. The homey tasting pan-seared polenta side ($7), served at dinner, and earthy-delight truffled bean puréee and mushrooms starter ($8), available at happy hour and dinner, are steals.

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