Carla Meyer

Dining review: TableVine’s a find in downtown Sacramento

Deep fried chicken, Belgium style fries and chimichurri in the kitchen at TableVine on April 18, 2017.
Deep fried chicken, Belgium style fries and chimichurri in the kitchen at TableVine on April 18, 2017. jvillegas@sacbee.com

People seeking reasonably priced, well-prepared food and a lovely setting should head to TableVine.

But they can walk, not run, to the 4-month-old restaurant in the former Bistro Michel space at 14th and O streets in downtown Sacramento. There were so many empty seats on our visits that it’s not worth breaking into a sprint, and possibly pulling a hammy, to try to nab one.

There were no other patrons at TableVine but us when we visited at noon on a Friday. We weren’t even sure the place was open until our server, who had been in the kitchen, answered our “yoo-hoo” call.

Things went well after that. That server, Mitchell, is a class act, and we liked the food and the two types of fresh, snappy, house-made lemonade – one with fresh basil and mint, one without. But our party of three went it mostly alone in the 40-seat restaurant during that lunch and for long stretches of our subsequent two visits for dinner.

We looked on the bright side: Had the place been fuller, we might not have felt comfortable asking servers so many questions about ingredients, or about the restaurant’s international 150-plus-bottle wine list, which runs from highly affordable (a 2014 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling, for $20) to skip-the-mortgage-payment-this-month (a 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Cabernet Sauvignon, for $3,500).

We also never felt as isolated as we might have had the servers lavished too much attention on us. Though they were highly attentive and personable, they never hovered nor otherwise acknowledged they knew what we knew – that we were the only ones there. The staff’s polish helped us, early into our first visit, to shift our initial, visuals-based perception of the place possibly being a dud to our second, lasting impression of it being an undiscovered gem and of us as fortunate early adopters.

TableVine owner-chef Dan Sneed, who formerly owned Pearl on the River and served as general manager at Ella Dining Room & Bar, said TableVine gets so packed at times, there’s a 45-minute wait for a table. The business is too young for him to pinpoint why some days bring crowds and others tumbleweeds. But Sneed has learned enough about attendance patterns to advise people who want to eat there to make a reservation.

Sneed envisions TableVine, which serves an all-day menu, as the kind of relaxed yet sophisticated restaurant common to wine regions near to and far from Sacramento. Places that draw farmers who wear jeans but drink nice bottles of wine and expect good service. The tablecloths and dark walls from Bistro Michel – the once highly regarded French place that closed last year after kitchen upheaval and the ill-advised adoption of a prix fixe menu – are now gone.

Newly seafoam-green walls and white wainscoting speak to Sneed’s desire to evoke a relaxed, wine-region vibe. The new color scheme also suits the restaurant’s “solarium” room, with its glass ceiling. Though the restaurant is divided, slightly awkwardly, into three separate dining areas, those areas now share an open, airy feel.

A contemporary-American menu of chicken, salmon and steak will not win points for innovation. But it compensates by pricing them about $5-$10 lower than similar dishes at upscale restaurants on nearby J and K streets and executing them at a high level. That last thing means more when one considers that longtime front-of-the-house specialist Sneed became a head chef for the first time a few months ago.

TableVine opened with onetime Bistro Michel chef Scott McNamara at its kitchen helm. But he left in mid-January after he broke his ankle, Sneed said, and is not returning. Instead of hiring someone new, Sneed, who graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., but never headed up a kitchen, took over. It was first a stop-gap, but Sneed said he decided he could make things work on a more permanent basis because he has strong support from his kitchen crew, which includes daytime sous chef Ryan Dziki, formerly of Pearl on the River.

Sneed first came to Sacramento to manage the Park’s restaurants for the Wong brothers, after building an impressive front-of-the-house résumé at upper-echelon San Francisco spots including Restaurant Gary Danko.

Most dishes we tried at TableVine were assured, starting with the deep-fried Mary’s half chicken, which comes in a single piece and is brined but not breaded before hitting the fryer. That lack of batter equates to a lack of the usual oiliness one encounters in fried chicken skin. Thin, crisp and golden brown, the skin holds a wealth of salty/earthy flavor – Sneed would not reveal all his brine’s ingredients, but listed juniper berries, cloves and bay leaf among them – as does the meat inside. Hand-cut fries served alongside the chicken are wonderful vessels for a lively chimichurri dip of parsley and cilantro.

Sneed designed TableVine’s menu items to pair well with certain wines. The chimichurri, for example, is meant for a fruity, rich malbec. Unaware of these arranged marriages as we dined (I learned about them later, when I interviewed Sneed), we free-styled. We ordered lemonades for lunch, then relied, during our evening visits, on the sage advice of our wine-savvy server Joe.

Joe’s already passed one level of his sommelier exam. On our first dinner visit, we asked him to recommend a white for our first courses, calamari and Caesar salad, and a red for our entree course of duck and steak. The wines he recommended, a 2014 Chateau de Thauvenay Sancerre and 2010 Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico (both $38), perfectly complemented the dishes they accompanied.

The sancerre deserves a special shout-out for helping tease out the latent heat of the marinara-style sauce accompanying the calamari appetizer. The squid itself was lightly breaded, crisply and generously portioned, for $11.

On our second dinner visit, we asked Joe to recommend a bottle to accompany the mussels, fried chicken and hamburger we ordered. The 2012 Poiema Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($32) did the job and then some, balancing the flavors of savory courses and offering a spicy rejoinder to our delicious, salted-caramel crème brûlée dessert.

Joe also gets credit for not trying to up-sell. He clearly read, either from our clothes or the entreating “we’re-on-a-budget-but-you’re-called-TableVine-so-we-need-to-try-bottles-of-wine” look in my eye, that we aimed for the $30-$40 range.

The mussels were plentiful, and served with a sauce of green curry, white wine, coconut milk and mussel jus that satisfied until we reached bowl’s bottom, where it began to flirt too intensely with saltiness. The burger was not memorable apart from its exceptionally fresh-tasting, house-baked brioche bun.

The New York strip steak ($20) was cooked to tender, medium-rare perfection. But the gummy, twice-baked potato accompanying it tasted thrice reheated.

At $22, the duck breast is TableVine’s most expensive entree, and worth the price. Slightly crunchy basil spätzle works in concert with the duck’s rich, fatty goodness. Slim stalks of Delta asparagus, blanched and finished in a high-heat oven, lend further textural intrigue.

The pizzetta starts with a blistery bounty of crust that absorbs the flavor of the fontina cream above it while maintaining its structural integrity. Sliced coppa adds salty/fatty accents to fresh-tasting vegetable toppings that include asparagus and zucchini.

Asparagus also factors in the disappointing risotto, in which both vegetable and rice tasted undercooked. Vegetarians visiting TableVine should order the garden-vegetable vindaloo, packed with cauliflower, eggplant, potatoes – and/or whatever else is in season, Sneed said – and sweet spices that eventually reveal a Trojan-horse heat akin to the calamari’s sauce.

About midway through our final TableVine dinner, a big, boisterous group of Capitol-affiliated young professionals sat down. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Or maybe it was just their existence, next to us.

The social experiment that dining at TableVine eventually became produced this insight: Though dining in a nearly empty restaurant enhances the sense of intimacy with one’s table companions, that feeling pales next to the energy one feels, and feeds off of, in a more bustling place. The kind of place TableVine deserves to be on a more consistent basis.

TableVine

1501 14th St., Sacramento. www.tablevine.com, 916-942-9686

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30-9 p.m. Saturday

Beverage options: International list of bottled wines runs more than 150 deep. Twenty wines by the glass. House-made, non-alcoholic lemonade comes with or without fresh basil and mint.

Vegetarian friendly: The menu offers only a few vegetarian dishes, but co-owner/chef Dan Sneed said other dishes can easily be made vegetarian by request.

Gluten-free options: Same rules apply as in the “vegetarian friendly” category.

Noise level: Hard to say. It was quiet on our three visits, but there was hardly anybody there.

Ambiance: TableVine, on our visits, felt light, airy and comfortable, but also like a bit of a ghost town. That vibe should change once more people know about the place.

Overall

It’s a lovely, affordable spot with good food and top-level, informed service.

Food

Restaurant owner Dan Sneed, though a novice to the executive-chef job, clearly knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. Though dishes are not particularly innovative, they are well-executed. The duck breast, deep-fried half chicken and garden-vegetable vindaloo are standouts. But the risotto tasted undercooked and the burger nondescript.

Service

1/2

Servers are attentive and highly knowledgeable about ingredients and wines, and always maintained their polish, even in a nearly empty restaurant.

Value

This is a higher-end restaurant, so it’s not a steal. But entrees run $5-$10 cheaper than comparable entrees at restaurants a few blocks away on J and K streets.

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