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Billy Ngo's food gets the restaurant it deserves.
For more than a decade, Kru on midtown’s J Street was widely considered one of the best restaurants in town, a favorite of food geeks and off-duty chefs. But it had a small, dark interior that didn’t match the high caliber of the food produced by its young chef/owner, Billy Ngo.
That problem was fixed with the opening this past October of a new Kru on Folsom Boulevard in East Sac. Teaming up with the owners of Hook & Ladder, Ngo took over half of the old Andiamo restaurant, setting up residence in a 6,000-square-foot space next to Randall Selland’s OBO’.
Kru still turns out the fresh, exciting Japanese fare that first put it on diners’ radar. But there are plenty of new twists to this Kru, including a craft cocktail bar, two outdoor patios, private dining room, retail bottle shop and roomy sushi bar that gives diners an unobstructed view as their food is prepared.
The partners worked with go-to restaurant designer Whitney Johnson, known for her sophisticated, eye-catching work at Shady Lady Saloon, Hook & Ladder and Bottle & Barlow. The space is a modern West Coast take on traditional Japanese architecture. Light and airy, it has exposed natural-wood beams and polished concrete floors. Everything is well thought out, from the beam of light shining onto a single vase on a wood shelf to the menu slots built into the custom raw-pine dining tables. There are pebble-rock floors in the unisex bathroom stalls (the only unisex restaurant restrooms in the city, according to Johnson) and, hanging in the communal washing-up area, a spiky light fixture reminiscent of a sea urchin. In a hallway, a vivid mural by local tattoo artist Corey Bernhardt celebrates the region’s rice fields.
Salmon trio nigiri
Hook & Ladder’s Chris Tucker, one of the leading figures in Sacramento’s craft cocktail scene, oversaw Kru’s new beverage program. The old restaurant served only beer, sake and wine; the new place has a full bar, with a selection of rare, sippable Japanese whiskeys curated by Tucker over the past two years. (The rarest retail for about $40 a glass.) Meanwhile, bar managers Chris Dooley and Stephen Berry created the whimsically named cocktails, such as Hundred Acre Woods (Monkey Shoulder scotch, egg white and vanilla bitters) and Peter Rabbit (Botanist gin, lime juice and elderflower liqueur, with a cheeky carrot chip garnish). There’s an extensive sake list, including cedar-aged and nama genshu (unpasteurized and therefore “alive in the bottle”) sakes. “If anyone wants to geek out on sake, we can probably open their eyes to things they haven’t seen before,” says assistant general manager Ken Macias, who worked at Austin’s Uchi restaurant and assembled the sake list. Rare and hard-to-find whiskeys, along with sake, wine and beer (both local and Japanese) are sold in the bottle shop that shares a space with the private dining room.
Chicken tail kushiyaki and green tea smoked duck breast kushiyaki
In the main dining room, favorites from the old Kru menu are still available: nigiri, sashimi, special rolls and small plates like sashimi tapas. Before opening the new space, Ngo experimented with ramen recipes, creating a lamb-and-mushroom broth to add to the traditional pork and miso bases. With the acquisition of an 1,100-degree yakitori grill, he added grilled skewers to the menu, things like chicken thigh oyster kushiyaki, grilled albacore tuna and beef tongue.
The 16-seat omakase bar is the star of the dining room. It’s lower than a traditional sushi bar, and food storage is tucked out of sight, so nothing blocks the diners’ view of the chefs’ hands as they produce Kru’s beautiful, Instagrammable food. Reservations are a must for omakase, the multicourse chef’s choice that costs $125. (An omakase cocktail pairing is available for an additional $45 to $75.)
Ngo, 35, grew up in South Sac, and he points to numerous culinary influences: the Chinese and Vietnamese flavors of his immigrant family, the Happy Meals and pizza he ate as a kid, the Japanese food he discovered while working as a busboy at a sushi restaurant during high school, the French techniques he later learned in culinary school. And don’t forget to throw in some good old Sacramento farm-to-fork while you’re at it.
Ngo describes his new restaurant as “the old Kru on steroids.” His food philosophy remains the same: Start with great ingredients, and don’t do much to them. “We just do good food,” he says.
3135 Folsom Blvd.