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This year, we asked our restaurant critic, Kira O'Donnell, the question that so many people ask her: "What are your favorite restaurants right now?" With a degree in enology from UC Davis, experience in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, L'Auberge and in her own pie shop, plus nearly 15 years writing about food and dining for Sacramento magazine and other publications, O'Donnell knows her stuff. Also, in keeping with tradition, we asked our readers and website visitors to vote for their favorites in 15 categories in our online survey. Get ready to eat!
There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of restaurants in the Sacramento region, and as the Sacramento magazine food critic, I've been lucky enough to dine at many of them. But whenever someone asks me to name my favorite restaurant (and it happens frequently), I scramble clumsily for an answer. The truth is, I have lots of favorite restaurants, and I frequent them for many different reasons. They range from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to swanky, see-and-be-seen eateries, but their common denominator is that each serves up earnest, thoughtful and beautifully crafted food in an environment that makes me feel welcomed and appreciated. Here are 20 that top my list.
The quintessential neighborhood bistro, Tuli Bistro serves inspired, high-end cuisine in an unpretentious environment. The best way to experience this restaurant is to belly up to the long granite counter overlooking the kitchen line so you can watch as your food is prepared. However, because the interior is very small, chances are you'll end up seated outside on the covered patio, which is heated during the winter months and is lovely on warm days. The food is innovative and seasonally driven, and the restaurant really knocks it out of the park with its pasta dishes and marvelous wood-oven pizzas. The chefs have a deft hand with seafood, and I get weak in the knees just thinking about the tender flank steak, served on a velvety celeriac-potato purée.
2031 S ST., SACRAMENTO; (916) 451-8854; TULIBISTRO.COM
Lauded for its excellent wine list, polished service and ravishing food, Hawks is a true dining destination. I've always admired the airy, spare dining room with its soothing pale blue and brown color scheme. There, black-andwhite photos of rustic farmscapes reflect owners Molly Hawks' and Michael Fagnoni's commitment to locally sourced ingredients. Soups are a specialty—I've never had one that wasn't sensational—and vegetables also get some real love in this kitchen. My favorite day to visit is Sunday, when the restaurant offers a comforting prix-fixe dinner. Come when they're serving fried chicken; it will knock your socks off.
5530 DOUGLAS BLVD., GRANITE BAY; (916) 791-6200; HAWKSRESTAURANT.COM
Tucked away in a Greenhaven retail center, Ravenous Cafe has a mission: to nourish the neighborhood with simple, delicious food. Chef/owner Mark Helms creates flavorful, Mediterranean-inspired fare. The compact menu includes mussels (offered three ways), excellent pasta dishes and a wildly popular grilled halloumi cheese appetizer with arugula, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. The short, appealing wine list features fun choices from Clarksburg, Amador County and the Sierra foothills. I like sitting at the counter, which affords an elevated view of the restaurant's goings-on. Ravenous has very limited seating, so make reservations.
7600 GREENHAVEN DRIVE, SACRAMENTO; (916) 399- 9309; RAVENOUSCAFE.COM
Thai restaurants abound in Sacramento, but Bangkok Garden in Natomas is one of the very best. The striking dining room has lustrous floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, an interesting collection of Thai artwork, a small shrine and a couple of colorful fish tanks. Every dish I've tried here has shone with vibrant, fresh flavors, from the vivacious calamari salad (tossed with chopped mint, red onion, cilantro and lemon grass) to the rich duck curry, whose lush, red, coconutty sauce is punctuated with chunks of sweet pineapple, bamboo shoots and fresh basil—lovely counterpoints to the duck meat. Note: Bangkok Garden's "medium" on the spicy scale is pretty hot, so if you're the cautious type, choose the "mild" option.
Gotta have it: Som tum (shredded fresh green papaya salad with green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, chilies and lime juice)
3230 ARENA BLVD., SACRAMENTO; (916) 285-0608
The Waterboy has been serving marvelous, satisfying fare with California, Northern Italian and Southern French flavors since 1996. Chef/owner Rick Mahan has a fanatically loyal fan base, and as one of the first chefs in town to promote and support small local farms, he's a celebrity for the region's Slow Fooders. The restaurant, which sits on a busy midtown corner, is bounded by large windows that flood the space with gorgeous light during the day. Friendly and warm, this is the perfect place to bring Someone Who Counts: your boss, your mother-in-law or a much-anticipated first date. Top menu picks include Mahan's exquisite fish dishes and wonderfully fresh salads. (If the bitter greens salad with blue cheese, bacon and walnuts is on the menu, order it.)
Gotta have it: Bouillabaisse with tomato-saffron broth and grilled bread
2000 CAPITOL AVE., SACRAMENTO; (916) 498-9891; WATERBOYRESTAURANT.COM
A superb "big town" eatery in rural, smalltown Woodland, Tazzina Bistro serves some of the most earnest food in the region. It's owned and operated by chef Rebecca Reichardt, who grew up in the area and is a dedicated supporter of small family farmers. She cooks hearty, interesting dishes that exuberantly showcase the seasons. A magnet for Yolo County foodies and the UC Davis crowd, the restaurant offers nightly specials: fish 'n' chips on Monday, chicken and dumplings on Tuesday, roast pork loin on Sunday. For bold, Italian-inspired fare, order the fabulous pulled lamb and gremolata polenta "lasagna" with niçoise olives, artichoke hearts, fennel and tomato confit.
Gotta have it: Mustard-crusted chicken with mashed potatoes
614 MAIN ST., WOODLAND; (530) 661-1700; TAZZINA BISTRO.COM
MOMO'S MEAT MARKET
If you're driving down Broadway in Tahoe Park and see smoke billowing from a black barbecue in a strip mall parking lot, you're probably passing MoMo's Meat Market. Owner Glenn Miller cooks his succulent tri tip, pork ribs and chicken right in front of the shop, and customers come in and buy it as fast as he makes it. I've arrived on several occasions when Miller and his wife, Sharon, have sold out of most of their product by mid-afternoon. (My advice: Call first to make sure they still have what you want.) They sell the meats individually or in combo plates, with Sharon's tangy-sweet sauce and a selection of sides. (Try the silky braised greens.) They also offer seafood chowder and a handful of sandwiches. If you're curious about a dish, ask for a sample: The Millers are happy to let you try before you buy. This no-frills establishment is also a regular meat market, and the Millers can order specialty meats (like goat, venison and rabbit) for you by request. Note: There's no seating at MoMo's—it's takeout only.
Gotta have it: The spicy, smoky hot links
5776 BROADWAY, SACRAMENTO; (916) 452-0202
Located in a snug, beautifully renovated 1908 bungalow, Boulevard Bistro offers up the finest food in Elk Grove. Chef/owner Bret Bohlmann is a passionate supporter of local farmers and purveyors, and his innovative cuisine sings with freshness and seasonality. This is a real family affair: While Bohlmann cooks in the back, his wife Debora runs the front of the house, greeting and seating diners and pouring wine. The soups and small plates are great, especially the sturdy crab cakes served with sesame seed-sweet chili vinaigrette. And sweetbreads—in an aromatic red wine thyme sauce punctuated with chunks of shiitake mushroom—are the best I've had in the region. I also like the wine list, a proud showcase of local wines from Amador and El Dorado counties, Clarksburg and Elk Grove.
Gotta have it: Iceberg wedge salad with buttermilk dressing, blue cheese crumbles and pepper-cured bacon
8941 ELK GROVE BLVD., ELK GROVE; (916) 685-2220; FRONTIERNET.NET/~BOULEVARDBISTRO
It's easy to assume that all of our best restaurants are in urban areas, but that's not the case: Make the trip to marvelous little Restaurant Taste in Plymouth and you'll be lavishly rewarded. It's the perfect place to cap off a day of wine tasting in Amador County. This nationally recognized restaurant has been praised in The New York Times and Wine Spectator magazine, which has given it an award of excellence for its wine list for the past three years. The delectable fare is beautifully presented, and the atmosphere is so congenial that you feel as though you're dining at a friend's home. A sumptuous rib-eye Delmonico steak comes with chunky artichoke and kalamata olive tapenade, and the phyllo-wrapped mushroom "cigars" make a whimsical starter. Taste's staff is experienced and attentive, and the wine and beer selections are first rate.
Gotta have it: Grilled tombo tuna with fried purple sticky rice and avocado cream
9402 MAIN ST., PLYMOUTH; (209) 245-3463; RESTAURANT TASTE.COM
Located in Arden Town Center, Plan B brings a touch of French chic to the Arden Park neighborhood. It's sleek and beautifully appointed, with dark wood paneling, rough brick walls and elegant white drapes. Here, it's easy to feel as though you're sitting in a glamorous cave. If you're a nibbler, you'll find great satisfaction in the restaurant's "stix" (mini-skewers of prawn, rib-eye steak and salmon) and delicate tartlets. (The roasted tomato and chèvre tartlet is scrumptious.) Mussels are offered six ways, and salads are a fresh, flavorful pleasure. The succulent Plan B burger, topped with wild mushrooms, ham and béarnaise sauce, is sophisticated enough to pair with a sturdy Cabernet Sauvignon.
Gotta have it: Mussels
555 LA SIERRA DRIVE, SACRAMENTO; (916) 483-3000; PLANBRESTAURANT.COM
Tiny Tucos serves the feistiest, most creative fare in Davis. The globally inspired menu never fails to surprise me. Where else in this busy university town can you find chilled spring cherry gazpacho, roasted Monterey sardine salad and lamb meatballs with Cuban mojo sauce, all from the same kitchen? The restaurant also offers a fabulous cheese selection (one entire page of the menu is devoted to an international lineup) and eclectic wine flights. Located on a quiet street near the train station, Tucos has limited indoor seating, but there's a nice dining space outside; arrive early for a good table. Jaunty music jazzes up the atmosphere, and well-trained servers will share in your excitement over the vibrant cuisine.
Gotta have it: Niçoise salad with blackolive dressing
130 G ST., DAVIS; (530) 757-6600
Carpe Vino may just be my favorite restaurant in the region. Its appealing historic location, intimate, artsy ambiance and stellar food make it a real dining treasure. It started out as a wine shop, but over the years it has blossomed into a restaurant. This is Placer County cuisine at its most inspiring and imaginative. Young chef Eric Alexander has built a solid reputation for himself with fiercely seasonal, locally focused fare. Try one of the excellent pasta dishes or the celestial foie gras and chicken liver mousse at a table in the narrow, brick-walled dining room. Or grab a seat at the shiny wood bar for a glass of fine wine and a bowl of fresh popcorn, drizzled with melted black truffle butter. There's also a romantic, candlelit private room behind the restaurant called the wine cave.
Gotta have it: Red-wine-braised Wagyu beef cheek with silky potato purée and shaved horseradish
1568 LINCOLN WAY, AUBURN; (530) 823-0320; CARPE VINOAUBURN.COM
BAMIYAN AFGHAN RESTAURANT
Serving radiantly delicious Afghani cuisine, Bamiyan Afghan Restaurant is a luxurious vacation destination for the senses. Decorated with beautiful woven rugs and enlivened with exotic background music, the restaurant offers a handful of low tables that require diners to sit on the floor instead of a chair. Start the meal with scorchingly hot green tea, which is slightly sweet and delicately flavored with cardamom. Be sure to try an appetizer or two. I adore the mantoo: steamed dumplings festooned with yellow split peas and yogurt-garlic-mint sauce. The shish kebabs are tantalizing. Other enticing dishes include mahie biryan (crispy fried trout) and fragrant morg chalow (tender chicken cooked with garlic and tomatoes and served with fragrant spinach rice).
Gotta have it: Leg of lamb shish kebab and halwaiy kadu, an addictive, sweet-savory pumpkin purée
7622 GREENBACK LANE, CITRUS HEIGHTS; (916) 725- 6009; AFGHANCUISINE.COM
ELLA DINING ROOM & BAR
The 2007 opening of Ella Dining Room & Bar introduced some serious swank to the downtown dining landscape. Created by a European design firm, the space juxtaposes weathered old Hungarian window shutters with contemporary lighting and diaphanous draperies. Distinctive and elegant, it's a magnet for the city's politicos and well-heeled foodies, who come in droves for chef Kelly McCown's enlightened, seasonally focused dishes and the bar's artisan-style cocktails. I love the casual lounge, where you can sit at a high table and watch the action. Ella has an appealing menu of small plates and selections from the cold seafood bar (perfect cocktail fare). The beautifully composed entrées are guaranteed to impress. Ella also offers an impressive cheese menu and wine list.
Gotta have it: Basil pesto ravioli with pine nuts, farm egg yolk and tiny greens
1131 K ST., SACRAMENTO; (916) 443-3772; ELLADINING ROOMANDBAR.COM
Friendly little Ficelle dishes up the most irresistible small plates in the region. The cramped dining room has a limited number of tables, and you have to order at the counter and gather your own silverware and plates. But there's an exciting array of tapas, many of which change daily. On a recent visit, I gobbled up gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic and pepper flakes) and tender chicken Provençal, braised in wine with tomatoes, garlic and niçoise olives. The food is honest, lusty and satisfying. On warm evenings, sit outside on the magical patio, dominated by a big oak tree illuminated with fairy lights. Note: The restaurant fills up fast and doesn't take reservations, so get there early.
Gotta have it: Plato Combinado (antipasto plate) with roasted sweet peppers, salami, marinated vegetables, several cheeses and grilled crostini
5C E. MAIN ST., WINTERS; (530) 795-9593; FICELLE-RESTAURANT.COM
If you're looking for dazzling culinary artistry, head to Ambience in Carmichael for one of chef/owner Morgan Song's five- or seven-course fixed-price meals. Song creates complex, visually stunning dishes that often elicit gasps of appreciation from diners. The wine-pairing option with each of the courses is a fun way to be introduced to new varietals, producers and food/wine partnerships. Song often serves game such as wild boar, rabbit or venison. Courses are modestly sized, so you should have plenty of room for one of the intricate desserts. (Baked Alaska is a signature item.)
6440 FAIR OAKS BLVD., CARMICHAEL; (916) 489-8464; AMBIENCERESTAURANTSAC.COM
THE PRESS BISTRO & BAR
Located in a hip, restaurant-crammed section of midtown, The Press Bistro & Bar quickly distinguished itself with its excellent, Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, snappy service and lively European-bistro ambiance. Owned and operated by the talented David English, the former chef at Ella Dining Room & Bar, this is one of the most engaging eateries in town. The interior features a lovely brick wall, a soaring ceiling, rustic exposed rafters and a lengthy community table. English offers an enticing selection of small plates, pastas and fullflavored entrées. The wine list features a wonderful (and economical) jumble of Spanish, French, Italian and California products.
1809 CAPITOL AVE., SACRAMENTO; (916) 444-2566; THEPRESSBISTRO.COM
Part supper club, part theater, part cocktail party: An evening at The Kitchen is a lengthy gastronomic adventure. The dining room, reserved months in advance, offers just one seating for 50 people per night. Its focal point is an open demonstration kitchen, framed by counter seating and surrounded by tables high enough to afford an excellent view of the chef. The atmosphere is infectiously jovial, and the multicourse meal is wildly creative (narrated throughout by the chef). During the mid-evening sushi/sashimi break, diners leave their seats and wander out to the tiny, walled-in patio to nosh and chat. There's no other dining experience like it in the region.
Gotta have it: Any wine recommended by the staff—they're spot-on
2225 HURLEY WAY, SACRAMENTO; (916) 568-7171; THEKITCHENRESTAURANT.COM
Entering Anatolian Table from the sprawling retail center in which it is located is like crossing into another continent. The walls explode with bold colors, and toe-curling scents waft from the sparklingly clean open kitchen. Take time to read through the lengthy menu: You could make a meal just out of the appetizers, which include spicy housemade hummus and a luscious smoked eggplant salad called patlican babganuc. Kebabs are a big seller, and so-called "oven foods" such as kusbasi pide, a traditional Turkish dish similar to a pizza and piled with chunks of lamb and vegetables, are a great option. The thick, tangy yogurt, breads and dessert pastries are all made in-house, and the flavors are vivid and fresh.
Gotta have it: Yogurtlu izgara kofte, little grilled meatballs with fresh yogurt and crunchy housemade croutons
6815 LONETREE BLVD., ROCKLIN; (916) 772-3020; ANATOLIANTABLE.COM
I'm pretty confident that Chando's Tacos plates up the tastiest tacos in town. If you want proof, just show up to the teeny eatery during a rainstorm and you'll see (like I have, on several occasions) a line of hungry, very wet customers waiting patiently to order. Once the food comes out (and it can take quite a while, especially on weekends), the outdoor seating options are bare bones at best. (And if it's raining, well, you'll be eating in your car.) Still, fans of Chando's can't get enough of those tacos. Served on excellent, fresh corn tortillas, these rustic treats are topped with lots of chopped white onion and cilantro, a big dollop of housemade guacamole and soft grilled green onions. Choose from six meats, including pork adobada (cooked on an upright rotisserie with big slices of pineapple) and chicken (marinated in achiote and citrus juices and charbroiled to order). Chando's also makes a fantastic pico de gallo that's just spicy enough.
Gotta have it: Carnitas taco
863 ARDEN WAY, SACRAMENTO; (916) 641-8226