Carla Meyer

First Impressions: Saddle Rock, the newest-oldest thing, scores with food, cocktails

Dandelion greens salad at Saddle Rock.
Dandelion greens salad at Saddle Rock. Carla Meyer

First Impressions visits dining spots that are new or have undergone transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

Pioneer restaurant Saddle Rock had quite a run on Second Street in what is now Old Sacramento. The place opened in 1849 and lasted more than a century, serving coffee and vittles to gold miners before becoming a gathering spot for political luminaries such as Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren.

The wait for the new Saddle Rock to open, in the former Capital Dime space at 1801 L St., was not 100 years. But it felt like it to Sacramento diners hungry for the restaurant’s promised nouveau Gold Rush cuisine.

Announced in July 2015, Saddle Rock finally debuted last week, after a chef change. Matt Masera (Mother, Empress) took charge of the kitchen after Kevin O’Connor (Blackbird), long attached to the project, exited.

But the chefs’ names, in this case, are not as vital as the owner’s. Saddle Rock’s Chris Jarosz also has stakes in West Sacramento’s Broderick Roadhouse, Broderick Midtown, Localis and the forthcoming The Patriot in Carmichael. Last week, he announced he also will take over food service at the Capitol.

The Pittsburgh, Pa.-raised Jarosz, known primarily as proprietor of the Wicked ’Wich food truck just five years ago, now has cracked the top layer of Sacramento restaurant-ownership ranks occupied by Randy Paragary, Randall Selland and the Wong brothers.

Success stories like Jarosz’s, of Easterners coming west and hitting it big, were common during the Gold Rush. They entailed vision and daring – qualities readily apparent as one enters Saddle Rock, where Jarosz has boldly combines mid-20th-century modern design with mid-19th-century rustic touches.

One first notices, upon crossing the threshold of the glass-and-steel-fronted space, a gray-tan modern sofa and star-shaped pendant light fixtures. Though this area holds a prominent painting of Mark Twain, rumored patron of the original Saddle Rock, its overall look leans more Philip K. Dick, with a spritz of Jacqueline Susann.

Beyond this lounge area, un-separated by walls, lies a second, with a camelback-style brown leather sofa and a cabinet holding whiskey bottles and old-timey curios. This sleek-and-rustic design mix carries through Saddle Rock, from its new “parklet” out front to its indoor bar and lounge areas and upstairs dining room and adjacent patio. But sleek dominates.

The menu holds clearer Gold Rush callbacks. Masera serves his own version of the Hangtown fry, that oysters-egg-bacon classic, started in Placerville, that the old Saddle Rock also served. The “Sacramento cioppino,” with catfish, crayfish and sturgeon, is river-centric. Dandelion greens and “poppy butter” appear elsewhere. The pickled and the preserved are in evidence, as they were in the days before restaurant walk-in refrigerators.

Pickled and preserved, and local and heirloom, and gin- and whiskey-favoring drink menus, like Saddle Rock’s, are common in today’s Sacramento restaurants. Although Saddle Rock goes 70 years farther back than Prohibition-themed places, there have been enough of those for Saddle Rock to not seem all that remarkably throwback.

That said, the food, drink and service all impressed when we visited last week, the first night the place opened to the public. The high standards in evidence at Localis and both Brodericks already were apparent at Saddle Rock, where the nattily dressed service staff seemed highly knowledgeable about food and drink ingredients.

Menu: The list of smaller-plate options, to be eaten in the bar, lounge areas and new “parklet” out front, is longer than that for entrees served at the bar and in the upstairs dining room and outdoor patio. Old-school starters include pickled eggs, chicken-fried catfish nuggets with preserved lemon, and a dandelion green salad with fresh and pickled watermelon. Entrees include beef Wellington and a whole roasted game hen.

Price point: Starters are $6-$14. Entrees run $16-$27. Craft cocktails $4-$9.

Ambiance: The mid-19th- and mid-20th-century design elements do not always jibe, but the restaurant is airy and spacious, especially when one counts the new “parklet” on L Street, and the upstairs patio outside the dining room.

Drinks: Craft cocktails include the “Dirty Means,” which comes with bourbon, leather (think about it – without all those chemicals used in apparel, of course it’s edible), chocolate and Thai chili, as well as three iterations of the 19th-century-born Ramos gin fizz, with egg whites. Wines by the glass and bottle. North Coast Scrimshaw, Sactown Union Brewing Freedom Ryder and Oak Park Brewing Co. Citra are available on tap.

First impressions: Masera and beverage director Karina Martinez (LowBrau, Block Butcher Bar) were terrific hires. The catfish nuggets, tender inside and crisp and spicy outside, were perfectly fried, and the dandelion greens salad offered a wonderful mix of the sweet (watermelon), peppery (radish) and slightly bitter (dandelion greens) within a vividly fresh whole. The “Dirty Means” offered a nice bourbon bite rounded out by the chocolate component, while also prompting a sudden urge to find a trusty steed on L Street. The small, $4 “Old Tom Ramos” gin fizz, its lemon and lime tartness offset only slightly by sugar, cream and egg whites, proved a perfect palate cleanser.

Try it if: You seek a taste of frontier life, without the hardships.

Skip it if: Leather in a drink sounds a tad too Brooklyn for an homage to Sacramento history.

Saddle Rock

1801 L St., Suite 50, Sacramento

Information: www.facebook.com/SaddleRockBar/

Hours: Opens 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

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