A Year in Review

Posted on December 1, 2009 – 3:28 PM | by OldManFoster
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Story and photos by Becky Grunewald

2009 was not a very exciting year food-wise in Sacramento.  We saw a few hyped openings, and a few sad closings, but for the most part restaurants were trying to hang on this year, just like the rest of us. Three that didn’t were Sanad’s, Wakano Ura, and Ricksha.  The passing of Wakano Ura and Rickshaw emphasized the sad slide of Sac’s Japantown.  I fear that June’s Café is next.  Sanad’s demise was pretty unlamented- probably due to their spotty service and overall lack of ambiance- but for a few months I was happy to live in a city where I could walk to get a good falafel.

Local food writing is experiencing a renaissance, however (present company excepted).  Kate Washington moved to SacTown magazine and had a hand in the general improvement of that publication.  Blair Anthony Robertson took over for Mike Dunne and began to cast a critical eye on the sacred cows of Sacramento dining.  Local blogger Hank Shaw garnered a James Beard award nomination for his blog: Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.  I discovered my new favorite local food blog, The Undercover Caterer.  It’s a fun mix of expert cooking advice and unbridled enthusiasm for local restaurants.  All of these developments slightly salve the pain I feel about the passing of Gourmet Magazine.

We saw some food-related controversy this year, too.  Blair Robertson had his chops mercilessly busted left and right by wingnut SacBee online commenters, and he gave as good as he got.  Raspy-voiced pitchman Guy Fieri continued to spotlight local restaurants and (at least temporarily) ruin them for regulars.  You gotta give him credit for picking some top-notch spots and boosting their business, however.  And speaking of those spots, the biggest brouhaha of all was the ADA suit that was brought against the tiny, grease-clogged Squeeze Inn.  I had no strong opinion on the case because the one time I ate at Squeeze Inn the cheese skirt put me out of commission for almost a full day.

I know you people love to read lists, so here’s a list of my favorite eating and drinking experiences of the year, in no particular order:

1. Oy, speaking of restaurants that couldn’t hold on, Sacramento Brewing Company went under in October. Brewer Peter Hoey had garnered critical acclaim for SBC beers, and had also introduced over 20 guest taps.  I loved his Collaborative Evil beer (a Belgian-style golden ale brewed with cane sugar), which I sampled at the State Fair brewfest.  It was a perfectly balanced joy to quaff, and won a bronze in a hotly contested category at the Great American Beer Fest.

Beer lovers have lost out, but don’t fear for Peter-he has already launched a new brewery called Odonata.  Their first release (Rorie’s Ale-a Belgian-style quad) was a cult smash here and in the Bay Area. He is one to watch.

2. Yay for Magpie Café! (1409 R Street, Suite 102)  If pressed to pick one outstanding item, I would choose their juicy and delectable roast chicken, in the form of either the half chicken with caper sauce and toast spears or the huge salad with hefty chicken slices.  But why choose?  I cherish this place.

Frito misto at OneSpeed

Frito misto at OneSpeed

3. My September article on tortas gave me a newfound love of tortas as a meat delivery system.  Most notably: any torta with chorizo at El Abuelo (5045 Franklin Blvd) and the comparatively restrained chicken torta at Mariscos Mazatlan (4800 Franklin Blvd).  Unfortunately, the torta article also left me with an extra five pounds that took two months to take off.  I’ll have to put off that carnitas article until I start training for the UFC.

4. The fritto misto at OneSpeed (4818 Folsom Blvd) was one of the best single dishes I tried this year.  The fennel, green olives, peppers and shrimp were fried crisp without being oily and the flavor and texture was sublime.  OneSpeed is an exciting new spot, and quite affordable for the skill of presentation and the quality of the ingredients.  Rick Mahan does it again.

5. About a year ago I wrote a short piece for the News and Review about happy hours around town.  I had little good to report.  Everyone was still stuck on Cosmopolitans and other outdated fare and there was hardly an artisanal spirit to be had.  Things have changed very quickly on that front, mostly thanks to the Shady Lady (1409 R Street).  They serve a long list of spirit-based cocktails that are period-correct to their Disney-fied Prohibition-era vibe. I love the Pimm’s cup, a cucumber-laced concoction that tastes refreshing and downright healthful. Honorable mention goes to their Dark N’ Stormy with housemade ginger syrup.

BanChan at Pine Tree House

BanChan at Pine Tree House

6. The banchan (little free snacks) at the Korean restaurant Pine Tree House (9205-D Folsom Blvd) continue to surprise and amaze.  Last time I went, I was given a plate of raw, bright green chilies.  They had a crisp juicy snap and no heat, and went perfectly with the salty dipping sauce. I also love their elegant romaine salad with red chili dressing. I usually fill up on banchan and have to take most of my kimchi jigae home.

7. After only six years of working in Davis, I finally found something good to eat- the Zia sandwich at Zia’s Deli (616 3rd Street).  It’s a zucchini frittata on a roll with provolone, served hot or cold, dressed with oil and vinegar; simple yet brilliant.  Zia also has wonderful, glossy-textured rolls that give the sandwiches an East Coast feel.

8. And finally, the most exciting thing I ate this year was not even close to one of the best.  It was an odd pizza at Masullo (2711 Riverside Blvd, one of my very favorite restaurants) called the Gilda.  It had black garlic, scallion, fish cake, soy sauce, and ginger; no cheese or sauce.  Bob Masullo and I discussed how black garlic is the hot new ingredient, and he said he had read about it and decided he wanted to use it on a pizza.  I don’t know how well it was selling, but it was sparking multiple conversations among customers and chef.  It was a trippy pizza, and although I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t order it again.

Gilda Pizza at Masullo

Gilda Pizza at Masullo

So why was it so very exciting?  Because Sacramento chefs continue to play it safe.  In the Bay Area you can eat nose to tail at every corner bistro.  In Portland there is experimentation overload.  I spotted a menu there that had a dish containing both escargot and bone marrow- a little much.  But here we still think we’re daring if we order sweetbreads, a dish that the Waterboy introduced us to ten years ago!  Sacramento chefs need to push our boundaries and educate our palates, and they can do it one dish at a time.  There is no need to compose a menu that will turn off those who are searching for a solid steak dinner.  We are years behind the curve, and menu after menu is clogged with safe old standbys.  I salute Bob Masullo for taking a chance and letting his passion guide him.

Overall, we’re making slow progress.  We now have multiple spots for stellar coffee, pizza, and cocktails, which was not true even five years ago.  Local wine lists are too mired in the idea of “local only” for my tastes, and our beer awareness is inching along.  We still need more affordable and ethnic fare downtown.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the asinine food cart law gets overturned in 2010 to help that along.  If the recession really is over (it doesn’t feel like it in my household), 2010 could be the year we make the great leap forward.

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