San Francisco Chronicle
By Michael Bauer
August 25, 2016
Three years ago, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau established a program to promote the city as “America’s Farm to Fork Capital.”
Pushing agriculture and restaurants may not be as important as being the legislative home of the sixth- largest economy in the world, but it’s certainly sexier. In addition, the marketing staff can make a strong case for its importance as an agricultural powerhouse for such distinctions as growing 80 percent of the world’s almonds and domestic caviar, and for its production of high-quality rice that fills the steamers in some of Japan’s best sushi restaurants.
“I feel that Sacramento has a cool soul about it,” says Michael Thiemann, who moved back to his hometown in 2013 to open Empress Tavern after cooking around the world and spending four years as Tyler Florence’s corporate chef working at Wayfare Tavern and other projects. “It’s more collaborative than competitive. It’s more a town than a city, and it’s surrounded by farms.”
But does that really translate to the plate?
I decided to find out, researching and visiting 17 of the city’s top restaurants. I chowed down on a sausage feast at LowBrau, forked into juicy lamb chops at the Empress Tavern, and marveled at the lasagna that chef owner Biba Caggiano has served for 30 years at Biba. She’s the queen of Sacramento dining and the closest thing Sacramento has to a celebrity chef, with nine cookbooks and “Biba’s Italian Kitchen,” a television show on the TLC and Discovery channel.
In the past few years, she has seen big changes in the quality of restaurants in her adopted city. “It’s getting better and better all the time,” she says.
Never having spent time in Sacramento before my recent foray, I can’t prove or disprove that statement, but I did find a fresh energy in the dining scene, and while some places showed signs of ambition without the needed focused execution, I found some things to love.
For many years, Caggiano — along with the Kitchen, which serves a $135 fixed-price menu — were about the only places that garnered a national reputation. For 25 years, Randall Selland has featured his own brand of dinner and a show with a dining counter surrounding the demonstration kitchen. The 60 diners are ensconced for the whole evening, and mingle during the feast and at an intermission. It’s still the hottest ticket in town and sells out up to two months in advance. Even though I planned ahead, I was unsuccessful in scoring a place at the table.
Selland and his wife, Nancy Zimmer, have been a force in the dining scene, opening Ella and Selland’s Market Cafe and in June debuting Obo Italian Table & Bar.
A little more than a year ago, Kelly McCown, formerly of Goose & Gander in St. Helena, signed on as the Kitchen’s executive chef. McCown was at one time the chef of Ella, so it was like a homecoming, even though he was raised in the Bay Area.
Thiemann credits McCown with shaking up the dining scene by creating a chefs’ collective.
“I saw there were a handful of guys doing cool things, but no one was coming together,” McCown said. He set up forums so chefs could discuss issues. He also hosted collective dinners and used his contacts to bring in nationally prominent chefs to get Sacramento more exposure.
“I think it kind of grew organically,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I set out to do. There’s all these guys here that are doing all these things, and people should know about it.”
As an indicator of where the culinary scene is headed, he points to the fact that the food at the Golden 1 Center (the Sacramento Kings’ arena) scheduled to open in October will be sustainably sourced.
McCown is one of the participants in September’s Farm-to-Fork Celebration, a month of farm tours, wine tastings, street festivals and restaurant events. A Farm-to-Fork Festival on Sept. 24 culminates in a dinner the next evening for nearly 800 people who will sit at one long table stretching over the landmark Tower Bridge.
While the PR apparatus has shifted into high gear in the last couple of years, the Sacramento dining scene has gained even more traction as prices in the Bay Area have escalated and talented chefs are looking for less expensive alternatives. More chefs are finding their way back to Sacramento.
Earlier this year, Andy Mirabell and his wife, Olia Kedik, returned to his hometown to open Skool on K Street, a branch of the 6-year-old restaurant in San Francisco’s Design District, featuring a similar Japanese-California fusion menu. They now live in Sacramento and return to the Bay Area to check up on their flagship.
When I visited Kru, one of the top Japanese restaurants in Sacramento, I was surprised to see Ricky Yap in the kitchen. Yap is the talented chef who helped earn Akiko’s a place on my Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list.
Those who have made the move from the Bay Area to Sacramento say that leases are more reasonable and the cost of obtaining a liquor license is a fraction of what it is in San Francisco. Yet Thiemann warns that even though the cost of doing business is less, the profit margin is about the same. Sacramento diners don’t earn as much and are more price sensitive, he says. In the end it takes vigilance to turn a profit.
“It’s a similar stress level, but a different package,” he says. Still, he loves being on the ground floor of an emerging dining scene.
While many restaurants have embraced the farm-to-table approach, two established personalities have led the way: Rick Mahan, who owns the 20-year-old Waterboy in Midtown, and Patrick Mulvaney. In 2006 he opened Mulvaney’s B&L in a converted 1893 brick firehouse. When you see the dozens of little wormholes in the arugula leaves, you know he takes organic seriously, and it’s clear in all preparations that the produce is pristine.
Still, much of the buzz centers on some new players, including Saddle Rock, which opened earlier this month and took the name of a local restaurant that opened in 1849 and closed in 1995. The menu reaches back to the Gold Rush for inspiration in both food and drink.
Saddle Rock hadn’t opened yet on my trip, so I can’t attest to the quality of the food, but early reports are promising. However, one of the best meals I had was at Hawks Public House, which opened in December. Chef Justin Green masterfully uses the area’s bounty in such items as Humboldt Fog goat cheese with local honey, summer bean salad with figs and fried almonds, and braised pork with bronze fennel. What he creates would easily stand with the best in San Francisco.
Thiemann’s Empress Tavern, which debuted a year ago, also promotes a strong link to the past — it’s in the basement adjacent to the Crest Theatre, which opened in 1912 on K Street. Thiemann also opened Mother, a vegetarian restaurant, a few doors down from the theater.
During the day, diners order at the counter at Mother, selecting from a blackboard menu that includes harissa broccoli with almonds and green olives; taco salad with black beans, corn nuts and cilantro aioli; and chicken-fried-mushroom po’ boy. At night he turns the space into a pop-up, producing a 12-course menu with a different theme, including Korean. The restaurant is near the Capitol, but even though it’s in a transient location, it has been embraced by locals, which he thinks shows that residents are becoming more sophisticated and adventuresome.
Even a few years ago, all the menus of the top restaurants used to look pretty much the same, he says. “Now we’re seeing a lot of other formats working.”
I found some “formats” work better than others, so here are my 10 picks for the best dining in Sacramento.
Mulvaney’s has a big-city vibe with its rustic recycling of an existing building. The scarred concrete floor, the makeshift open kitchen in the rear of the dining room and schoolhouse chairs bring the past into the present. Chef Patrick Mulvaney uses the regional bounty in about every dish. Arugula salad is tamed with crumbles of soft goat cheese and wedges of apricots. Fettuccine is tossed with two kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of squash, wax beans and loads of shaved raw garlic that adds pungent interest to the blend. Green and yellow wax beans and spicy miso become the base for a fillet of California black cod. And at dessert: an excellent apricot crostata.
1215 19th St.; (916) 441-6022. www.mulvaneysbl.com. Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
At this modest vegetarian restaurant on K Street, diners step to the counter to order such items as grilled cabbage drizzled with honey mustard and Cobb salad with falafel, cooked egg with a gooey yolk, several kinds of radishes and a market basket of other produce. It’s quick, casual and high quality. At night, chef-owner Michael Thiemann and his crew create a pop-up with a different 12-course menu each week that explores various cultures.
1023 K St.; (916) 594-9812. www.mothersacramento.com. Lunch Monday, lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, dinner only Saturday.
The basement interior looks kind of like a catacomb with its arched brick ceiling, focusing attention on the busy center bar that turns out excellent cocktails and the open kitchen built around a rotisserie that holds chicken, lamb and rolled free-range turkey. Salads taste as if they come straight from the farm, and for dessert there’s a classic vanilla souffle or s’more pie where the marshmallow topping is torched table-side.
1013 K St.; (916) 662-7694. www.empresstavern.com. Dinner Monday-Saturday.
Chef-owner Billy Ngo has found success in the past decade presenting his pristine take on sushi and sashimi. These are a given, but the other offerings are also first rate: grilled chicken thigh yakitori, a beautifully cooked hamachi collar with ponzu sauce, and a sprout salad with julienne pickled vegetables and squash blossoms draped over the top. Whether it’s airy tempura or a finger of uni resting on a pad of warm rice, the precision and talent are evident.
2516 J St.; (916) 551-1559. www.krurestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner continuously Monday-Saturday, dinner Sunday. (Note: The restaurant is scheduled to move to a new location on Folsom Street in the near future.)
This new wave Southern counter-service restaurant features a full-blown menu, but I’d go for the fried chicken; puffy, light biscuits; and the creamy macaroni and cheese. Service can get backed up at peak times, but it’s open continuously, making it a prime stop for a late lunch or early dinner.
2005 11th St.; (916) 382-9772. www.weheartfriedchicken.com. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
With its expansive patio in front and cutting-edge interior featuring thick wood tables, concrete walls and floor, it’s a perfect place for beer and sausage. The limited menu features six kinds, and all are superb — beautifully blistered and juicy. I don’t usually warm to the newfangled offerings, such as one with chicken and feta, but in this case the blend of ingredients makes sense and the flavors are pure.
1050 20th St.; (916) 706-2636. www.lowbrausacramento.com. Open continuously for lunch and dinner daily.
The interior may be stuck in the 1990s, with its yellow orange-peel textured walls, but what’s on the plate channels the specialties of Biba Caggiano’s beloved Bologna. From start to finish, the chef-owner shows why it’s earned its place as a classic, whether it’s the butter lettuce with a tangy Gorgonzola dressing and pine nuts; silken carbonara sauce with Parmesan cheese grated table-side; thin slices of veal topped with crispy prosciutto; or lasagna with 10 layers of handkerchief pasta draped over meat sauce and bechamel green from herbs. Yet the real draw is Caggiano, elegant in her Missoni sweater. As we were leaving, she stopped us to chat and dole out gems of wisdom, such as “raising children is nothing compared to owning a restaurant. You have to be there all the time.”
2801 Capitol Ave.; (916) 455-2422. www.biba-restaurant.com. Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday.
When I saw Justin Green repeatedly pull sprigs of herb out of a large container on the counter between him and the open kitchen to garnish the plates, it became evident that this kitchen has it together. This sense of detail is evident in the menu: Radishes with roots and tender leaves attached on black garlic butter; seared squid on a soupy bed of heirloom beans with generous chunks of sausage; and rack pork sliced and presented on a cutting board arranged with seasonal fruit, squash and black pepper honey. The excitement I felt in the savory courses held through dessert, with an apricot tart and the signature Public House bar with chocolate, peanuts feuilletine and caramel.
1525 Alhambra Blvd.; (916) 588-4440. www.hawkspublichouse.com. Lunch and dinner continuously Sunday-Friday, dinner Saturday.
The dining room, just blocks from the Capitol, feels a little incongruous, with draped columns and weathered shutters paving the ceiling and upper portions of some walls. The tables are wood, the chairs are upholstered, and the tile floor would look more appropriate in a bathroom. The menu is designed to please both politicians and visitors. At lunch there’s a very good fried chicken served with a chile sauce and lemon wedges; fish tacos; chef’s salad; Reuben sandwich; pan-roasted salmon and flatiron steak salad. At dinner the menu expands to include such items as Thai spiced lobster, seared scallops with mushrooms and wood-fired pork chop with rosemary grits.
1131 K St.; (916) 443-3772. www.elladiningroomandbar.com. Open continuously for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, dinner Saturday.
Even after 20 years, this Midtown restaurant owned by chef Rick Mahan is considered one of Sacramento’s best local spots. The somewhat cluttered warehouse space has a homey, kind of makeshift appeal. The long menu features more than 25 items, including seven main courses. The Caesar is excellent, if a little overdressed, and the beef tartare is nicely seasoned and spooned into four choux shells that resembles cream puffs. You can taste the skill in executing the French-Italian menu in the bouillabaisse and in the steak that celebrates Sacramento’s “Cowtown” roots. Desserts are a highlight, including cherry croustade with cream cheese ice cream and coconut creme brulee.
2000 Capitol Ave.; (916) 498-9891. www.waterboyrestaurant.com. Lunch weekdays; dinner nightly.