Magpie Cafe

Posted on July 28, 2009 – 5:58 PM | by OldManFoster
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My first exposure to Magpie Caterer’s food was at a friend’s wedding.  The little nibbles that were being sent around were pretty, sophisticated, and delicious.  When I heard a month or so later that the caterers were opening a café, I was intrigued.  Magpie Café and Caterers opened four months ago in the new strip of R street businesses that are adding some real, homegrown action to Sacramento.


The cafe is spare and uncluttered, with high ceilings, brick walls, and exposed pipes.  The artwork is muted and the music is tasteful yet modern.  I’ve recognized a variety of artists, including the local band, Agent Ribbons, whose CD seems to be in regular rotation.  The local ethos starts with the music, and extends to the entire philosophy of this business, which could be summed up as fresh, seasonal, local for the masses.

The menu changes often, and is updated online every single day, which is helpful if you’re looking for a favorite dish.  Ordering takes place at the counter, which helps to keep the cost low.  You’ll barely miss the lack of table service because the employees are extremely attentive.  I once had a replacement fork delivered with a smile practically before my own hit the floor.

magpieThe first dish at Magpie that really made me sit up and pay attention was the roast chicken for two.  As any home cook knows, roast chicken is a simple dish to do well, but a hard dish to do perfectly-and Magpie’s execution is flawless.  The chicken is soft and just barely pink at the bone.  It is presented in a large bowl, usually with a small mixed salad and some sort of roast vegetable-I’ve had both potatoes and green beans on different occasions.  The current sauce that they are serving it with is caper heavy and the salty/sour tang of the caper and lemon sauce is a delicious complement to the juicy chicken.

Magpie treats vegetables with the respect they deserve.  They offer a daily vegetable plate of seasonal grilled and roasted vegetables.  It contains five or six varieties-from caramelized sweet carrots to juicy zucchini to citrusy diced chard.  A mixed salad of red lettuce, shaved fennel, and candied almonds with a light coating of Two Rivers cider vinaigrette was a wonderful combination of flavors.  The licorice-y fennel added earthiness and the toast spears added heft.  A salad nicoise made with wild salmon-they use the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watchlist as their buying guide-was also quite good.

Magpie doesn’t just do vegetables well-these people are sandwich masters!  The Niman Ranch ham and camembert sandwich was impeccable.  That’s the word I actually scrawled into my notes as I chowed down.  It was served with a pile of pickled red onions on top, and it also came with cornichons and whole seed mustard.  Pickle heaven.  It was the best ham sandwich I’ve ever had-Croque Monsieurs in Paris included.

Their mastery of the sandwich form extends to the breakfast sandwich as well.  It’s served on nicely textured Grateful Bread, and filled with peppery scrambled eggs, melted cheddar, and grilled vegetables-including red pepper, asparagus, and mushroom.  I took the option of adding bacon and it really could have served as breakfast for two.  Again, it was the care given to the vegetables that elevated the dish.  The breakfast menu is quite simple-just the daily sandwich and some pastries and yogurt with granola.  The coffee is Coffeeworks Brazilian Roast and they offer it brewed or in a French Press if you like it stronger.  Magpie is a sunny and no-hassle breakfast option, and they open at 7:30 am.

magpieFor a restaurant that has been open a mere four months, the cooking is quite assured.  The one real dud of a dish that I’ve tried was the penne with tomatoes.  The night I tried it the penne was overly soft and was sitting in a pool of oil with sub-par, grainy tomatoes.  Another night, the artichokes appetizer was so waterlogged that it was unpleasant to eat.  Due to the counter service, the dishes often arrive all at one time, so it’s good to keep that in mind when ordering if you’re in the mood for a leisurely meal. Their wine list is made up of the usual local stuff -Revolution, Scribner Bend, etc.-so it’s not at all to my taste.  The local beer list could also be stronger, but it benefits from the unusual addition of Two Rivers blood orange cider, which is quite refreshing.

After I was done with my slew of visits for this review I ripped off my disguise, Mission Impossible-style, and asked the owners, Ed and Janel Inouye, a few questions.

They are local folks; they graduated Sac High and Kennedy High, respectively, and they have worked in the restaurant biz all over the place.  The whole time they were working elsewhere, they were dreaming about feeding Sacramentans.  The pair started Magpie catering in Sacramento four years ago with a small amount of capital and with the ultimate goal of a downtown restaurant in mind.

They were adamant about the fact that they don’t want to be too precious about keeping it seasonal and local.  They have about “80 percent” local foods, but they aren’t “kicking out Coca Cola”.  They want their food to be accessible to all, and they want all types to feel comfortable there.  According to Ed, they were interested in doing the same type of food they were catering, but in a “more casual, even a more affordable setting”.

I’ve eaten at Magpie quite a few times now, and I’ve been consistently impressed by the healthfulness of their menu.  They added depth to a simple soup of barley and black eyed peas by using miso paste and chard, rather than the rich ingredients that many chefs rely on.  Continuing along the theme of making it a place for everyone, Ed said that he’s not a “health food person”, and that the food is “accidentally healthy”, more just through using natural products and eating seasonally rather than because of any concerted effort.  It may just be accidentally healthy, but it’s not accidentally delicious-and it’s a welcome addition to the local dining scene.

Magpie Café, 1409 R Street #102, Sacramento.  916 452 7594

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