For the past couple of months, art lovers have been flocking to the remodeled Crocker Art Museum, which opened with great fanfare on Oct. 10. The structure is certainly worth gasping over: The extensive expansion cleverly married the original 1885 building with a sleek, ultramodern new wing, and the exhibits are spectacular. The significantly larger museum is the most exciting thing to hit downtown Sacramento in recent history, and it only serves to prove what we already know: Our city is way cool.
It seems reasonable that such a grand public amenity would showcase equally captivating food for its art-dazzled, hungry patrons. That’s where chef Patrick Mulvaney and his wife and business partner, Bobbin Mulvaney, come in. Beating out 17 other restaurateurs for the space, they’ve brought to the new Crocker Cafe their own brand of affability, talent and fierce commitment to local farmers.
Practically a community institution themselves, Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney have been around for years as caterers and restaurateurs. While they’re perhaps best known for Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, their midtown dining hotspot, what I admire most about the couple is how lavishly they give of their time, staff and resources to the Sacramento region. Just follow your nose to a charitable event’s makeshift kitchen and inevitably you’ll find Patrick, slicing up a donated, spit-roasted pig, warmly greeting friends and dispensing wisdom about the value of eating locally.
With this track record of community-mindedness, it seems absolutely right that the Mulvaneys should be ensconced in the Crocker, plating up their earnest, farm-inspired fare and showering diners with local goodwill. The couple’s goal, says Bobbin, is to create great-tasting food that is an extension of the visitor’s visual experience. “They come in and see Thiebaud,” she says, “and beautiful pictures of the Great Valley. Then they stop in at the cafe and try food whose ingredients come right from that valley.”
Crocker Cafe is open to the public—you don’t have to pay the museum admission fee to dine there. It offers a limited, engaging menu of self-serve and “fast casual” cuisine that you order at the register and is delivered by a staffer to the table. The menu, which changes weekly, includes soups, salads, sandwiches and hot entrées.
There’s also a “chef’s table” option. Unlike a traditional chef’s table, it’s not located in the kitchen. Groups can call ahead and arrange for a table in the main dining area to be draped in white linen and preset with silverware. The group gets its own waiter and enjoys a conventional restaurant dining experience.
Museum hours are extended until 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday and 9 p.m. on Thursday, so the cafe is a unique dinner destination as well. On a recent evening, I marveled at the hushed serenity of the dining area, so quiet after the cacophonous clamor of a lunch visit several days prior. I was able to absorb the haunting beauty of the museum’s intricate Indonesian carved posts, crafted from mangrove trees, that loomed quietly beside our table; and artist Jennifer Bartlett’s ravishing oil beachscape, “Pacific Ocean,” hanging on a nearby wall, was so soothing and real, I wanted to pull my shoes off and walk on its speckled sand.
Instead, I dug into the fork-tender chile verde, topped with magenta-colored pickled onions and served with earthy corn tortillas and a soft, creamy polenta—a perfect rainy-day repast. The robust bucatini was smothered in thick, meaty Bolognese sauce, and a lovely, deconstructed roast chicken salad featured fanned baby romaine leaves swathed in a fabulous Gorgonzola dressing, sprinkled with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and adorned with a fanciful crisscross of bacon. A sweetly pleasing squash soup was another hit, and the Niman Ranch cheeseburger was thick, juicy and satisfying. I also relished the handmade, purse-shaped agnolotti pasta, sautéed, the day I visited, with tiny fig halves.
I saved room for the cafe’s comforting butterscotch pudding, topped with softly whipped cream, and my 8-year-old happily devoured a tender, crumbly chocolate cupcake. Hearingthe appreciative murmurs of diners seated around us, I was proud of Sacramento’s stunning new art museum. And as a foodie, I felt very fortunate that its cafe is operated by such an accomplished team of culinary specialists.
Child-friendly: Kids can order chicken fingers, mac ’n’ cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich
In a hurry: Crocker Cafe sells prepackaged sandwiches and salads, in addition to chips, fresh fruit and a wide selection of bottled beverages
216 O St., Sacramento; (916) 596-1709; crockerartmuseum.org
Hours: Tuesday–Wednesday 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m.– 8:30 p.m., Friday–Sunday 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m., closed Monday