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Dining Outdoors


Posted on May 30

Photography by Jayson Carpenter

The phrase “eating out” takes on new meaning in the summer, when local restaurants take advantage of Sacramento's great weather and set up tables on outside patios, decks and sidewalks.

Why does food always seem to taste better when we eat it outside? Perhaps, when we are liberated from the walls that confine us, our senses are also freed, and we're able to experience our meal more vividly. Maybe a beautiful setting compels us to focus our energies outward, to appreciate our surroundings—including our food—with renewed vigor and appetite. Or, it simply could be that eating outside is just plain fun, and fun makes everything better. Whatever the reason, now's the season!

Slocum House

7992 California Ave., Fair Oaks Village; (916) 961-7211
A visit to Slocum House and its lovely outdoor patio would be sadly incomplete without a Wild Chicken Encounter.

Haughty hoards of poultry roam the streets of Fair Oaks Village, particularly enjoying a casual stroll in front of cars headed into the parking lot of this well-regarded restaurant. On the evening we visited, a handsome, buckskin-colored rooster ushered his girlfriends across the road directly in the path of our car. I screeched to a halt and watched for them to emerge on the other side of the undercarriage. Traffic piled up behind me, yet there was no sign of the group. Not interested in committing murder before a fine dining experience, I got out of the car and peered under the bumper. There was the fine fellow and his bevy of clucking admirers, all standing peacefully in front of my tires. As I shooed them away, the rooster shot me an insouciant look through hooded eyes and ambled to the sidewalk with great dignity.

In Slocum's parking lot, we spied several chickens perching nimbly on some tree branches, at least 10 feet up. Soon after, enjoying a Champagne cocktail at the bar, we were told that the chickens frequently promenade through the restaurant's patio area. “In the springtime, they have lots of chicks following them,” said the bartender with an indulgent smile on his face. “That is,” he added, “until they all start getting picked off.”

Slocum House's outdoor dining area, dominated by a regal old oak tree festooned with tiny fairy lights, is charming and luxuriant. It is roughly flower-shaped, with tables situated in a middle section and then fanning out into “petals” of circular, private dining nooks surrounded by metal railings. The patio is bounded by carefully manicured boxwood hedges, fea-thery Japanese maple trees, camellias and trumpet vines. The night we dined, the scent of honeysuckle drenched the air.

As we examined the menu, we spotted a “free-range chicken breast” among the entrées and had a giggle imagining Slocum's chef, Jim LaPerriere, sprinting behind a pack of resident poultry, butcher's knife in hand. The vision was so amusing that we decided to order the dish. But first, we sampled LaPerriere's splendid beignets de fromage, crusty, hot fritter rounds containing a sob-inducing mixture of melted brie and Stilton cheeses. Served with crisp slices of Asian pear, red grapes and toasted walnuts, this sophisticated appetizer was a wonderful interplay of hot/cold, crunchy/smooth and sweet/salty components. We also devoured the ahi spring roll in short order. The kitchen packs a fat, fresh chunk of raw ahi tuna in an egg-roll wrapper with bok choy, carrots, scallions and jicama, and quickly deep-fries the ensemble, serving it with a zesty wasabi crème fraîche. A small mound of mixed greens, bathed in a vinaigrette redolent of sesame, accompanies the rolls, and a crispy white snowball of fried rice noodles comically adorns the plate.

LaPerriere's ambitious menu roams the globe, featuring complex Asian, Latin and French-inspired dishes that make entrée selection an agonizing process. We reluctantly decided to forgo the mahi-mahi wrapped in hoja santa (the leaves of the hoja santa plant are used in the cooking of Southern Mexico) and the crispy coconut prawns in favor of wood-grilled Australian lamb noisettes.

A velvety shrimp bisque heralded the appearance our entrées. Softly coral colored, intensely shellfishy, with a judicious addition of cream, the soup was sprinkled with chives and left an unexpected, lingering spiciness on the palate.

The excellent noisettes (the trimmed meat from the eye of a loin lamb chop) were drizzled with a pomegranate-walnut sauce and had been marinated with garlic, mint, oregano and olive oil, and wrapped in smoked pancetta before being grilled. The chicken breast, all joking aside, was a real showstopper. Its crispy exterior hid a surprise layer of mushrooms and a black-truffle sheep's milk cheese lurking deliciously between skin and meat. Sheathed in an elegant Chardonnay-tarragon pan sauce, the poultry reclined atop a pile of mashed potatoes and shared the plate with tiny baby carrots, sautéed mushrooms and asparagus.

Painfully full, we still managed to forge ahead with dessert. Delighted with our beignet appetizer, we decided to revisit the fritters in another guise, in LaPerriere's whimsical “milk and doughnuts.” The two beignets on this plate were sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and emitted a celestial squirt of melted chocolate ganache in the mouth when bitten into. They were accompanied by a tiny housemade doughnut and a domelike blood orange amaretto panna cotta. Garnished with ruby slices of blood orange, the quivery panna cotta had a refreshing, clean flavor.

Rio City Cafe

1110 Front St., Old Sacramento; (916) 442-8226
Tourists and Sacramento denizens alike pour into Rio City Cafe during the warmer months to soak in the vista from the restaurant's extensive outdoor dining area. Perched over the Sacramento River, the patio affords views of the wacky Ziggurat building, our dubiously golden Tower Bridge and, of course, the turbid water flowing cheerily below. Boats sweep past, birds swoop gracefully over the river, and life can seem just a little brighter while you're sipping a martini and languishing on the deck of this popular establishment.

We came for Sunday brunch and were escorted briskly to a small table for two clinging to the back wall of the restaurant. We gazed enviously at diners who had arrived earlier, sheltered by umbrellas and seated much closer to the water. As the sun shifted, however, those same diners began contorting uncomfortably in their chairs, moving into small bunches under the umbrellas to avoid the scorching rays. On hot days, you would do well to request the canopy-covered portion of the patio.

We found service to be somewhat perfunctory and impersonal. Intrigued by the hot Dungeness crab sandwich, we asked our waiter if the kitchen tended to be heavy-handed with mayonnaise in the dish. A flicker of irritation passed over his face. “It's mixed in,” he said, a nonanswer that left us puzzled. “So,” he added testily, “is that what you want?” Cowed, we nodded, hastily adding a breakfast burrito to the tab before he could dash away. As he left the table, the waiter flashed a brittle smile and quipped: “It's a beautiful morning, you're out on the patio, and everything just looks fantastic!” Translation: No whiners allowed. Drugged by the beauty of a sunny spring morning, however, we soon relaxed and counted the number of babies on the deck and admired the attractive teak tables and chairs as we waited for our food.

My companion's breakfast burrito was enormous, packed with andouille sausage, scrambled eggs, assorted vegetables, rice and Jack cheese. A mound of breakfast potatoes alongside, flecked with onions and bell peppers, was hearty and appealing. My crab sandwich, served up on slices of baguette, was just the right size, covered with melted cheese and fanned avocado slices. The pile of coleslaw next to the sandwich, however, was limp, glossy and shellacked with mayonnaise. That which I had feared, I realized, had been relegated to the salad, not the crabmeat. The tastiness of the sandwich, however, more than made up for the atrocity committed to the poor coleslaw. We chewed away contentedly, and moments later the waiter appeared just long enough to gush, “How's everything? It looks wonderful!” before disappearing like a wraith.

Our “mile-high” chocolate cake was indeed a towering confection. Served cold (the menu promised it would be warm) and lacking the amaretto crème anglaise that was supposed to accompany it, the dessert still managed to win our hearts with its rich, sumptuous frosting.

Suddenly, a loud horn ripped through the air. Curious patrons swiveled their heads looking for the source of the noise. To our left, the midspan of the golden bridge began to rise up. In the seven years we have lived in the region, I had not yet witnessed this process, and it was truly an inspiring marvel of human invention. Captivated, Rio City diners watched as the Spirit of Sacramento sailed by, flags flapping jauntily in the breeze as it headed toward the bridge.

Tower Cafe

1518 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 441-0222
Sprawling and friendly, Tower Cafe has become a Sacramento dining institution. Perhaps best-known for its sumptuous brunches (don't miss the French toast) and freshly baked pastries, it also offers a surprisingly multiethnic lunch and dinner menu. And there's no place better to dig into the kitchen's toothsome Brazilian chicken salad or crusty pile of fish and chips (made with fresh cod) than in Tower's funky, verdant outdoor garden patio.

Despite the fact that it's situated on the very busy corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive, the patio is a cozy haven amid tooting horns, roaring car engines and a parade of pedestrians. Potted plants, hardy shrubs and clutches of sometimes-scraggly trees protectively surround the dining area, effectively cutting it off from the urban energy swirling outside it. The atmosphere is laid-back and comfortable, aided by soothing “world” music pouring out of overhead speakers, and all the noise conspires to make this a perfect environment for cranky, fretful children and loud conversationalists.

Chairs are econo-plastic, tabletops are of thickly varnished wood, and patrons are often squeezed more closely together than they might like. But Tower's food is solid and reliable, and offers something for even the pickiest eater. After considering the Jamaican jerk chicken and Cantonese-style Chinese barbecue, we settled on a Mexican dish called budin Azteca, a comforting, layered tortilla lasagne. Cheesy and rich, the layers are punctuated with sweet kernels of corn and enlivened by a mildly spicy green-chile sauce. An equally cheesy chile relleno, crisped to perfection, shares plate space with the budin. Our “all-American” burger, smothered with melted cheddar cheese, tomatoes, onions and lettuce, was shockingly messy to eat, and predictably satisfying.

While eating our meal, we observed our environment with interest. To our right sat a woman with a row of water glasses meticulously lined up in front of her plate, chatting animatedly to herself and waving her arms expressively to an invisible audience. Other tables nearby held a professional couple holding a serious discussion, a gaggle of gossiping young women and a family with three rambunctious children. The high point of our evening, aside from the very human show around us, was a marshmallowy lemon meringue tart. Tangy and frothy, with a tender butter crust, it was consumed in seconds.

Paragary’s Bar & Oven

1401 28th St., Sacramento; (916) 457-5737
Affable, familiar Paragary’s restaurant at 28th and N streets has cranked out admiringly consistent, high-quality meals for 20 years. Still packed to the rafters on weekend nights, despite the mushrooming dining scene in town, the restaurant has a simple secret: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The core menu seems to have remained essentially the same for years, and patrons longing for the prosciutto and caramelized-onion pizza or the delectable Caesar salad can take comfort in the fact that those items will be available—and recognizable—whenever they visit.

However, lest we take this respectable establishment for granted, let us point out that no one in midtown can hold a candle to Paragary’s back patio, a Mediterranean-style oasis surrounded by tall walls and shaded by gnarled olive trees. Sheet-metal waterfalls, situated at the back of the patio, shower their cool liquid into large ceramic pots, and if you’re lucky, on sizzling days you’ll get hit with the refreshing droplets that spring back out. The rushing water creates a soothing white noise that manages to drown out the cars and activity roaring right outside those secluded walls.

We recently had an exquisite lunch on Paragary’s patio. The restaurant’s marvelous bread—tender and chewy inside, with a crackly, bubbled exterior and pleasingly sour tang—was exactly as we had remembered it. An abundant pile of fat, juicy, wood oven-roasted mussels was sprinkled with parsley and rested in a savory broth fragrant with garlic and butter. The aioli-brushed sirloin steak sandwich, stacked with grilled portobello mushrooms and arugula, featured perhaps the largest pile of shoestring onion rings we have ever seen. And our old favorite, the silky, hand-cut rosemary noodles, was rife with chunks of peppery chicken, thinly sliced artichokes, pancetta and leeks. The lunch ended stunningly, with an electric pineapple/passion-fruit sorbet, flanked by delicate, flaky shortbread cookies. The sun under which we basked that day may have been Sacramentan, not Tuscan, but it felt like an Italian holiday to us all the same.

The Cliff House of Folsom

9900 Greenback Lane, Folsom; (916) 989-9243

For sheer drama, the view from The Cliff House’s outside deck cannot be matched. Nab a coveted table next to the edge of the railing and your eyes will plunge downward, taking in the beautiful old Rainbow Bridge, sweep across sparkling Lake Natoma, fringed with trees, lush grasses and tidy bike paths, and end up gazing at the newer Lake Natoma Crossing bridge. Expansive and dazzling, the panorama leaves one breathless—and, the restaurant hopes, hungry as well.

Determined to get a table with a view, we visited The Cliff House at 5:30 on a Saturday evening. To our surprise, the deck was already filling up with people as determined as we were, faces alight with joy as they marched purposefully behind the hostess toward the edge of the deck. We settled in and observed the bucolic scene below us: families cycling lazily on the trails, boats sluicing gently through water, and, across the lake, homes in Folsom’s Old Town peeking shyly through tall trees.

Behind us, water tumbled prettily from a fountain. Vehicles, looking like Matchbox cars, rumbled across the Lake Natoma Crossing bridge. Interrupting my reverie, my companion nudged me. “The deck is kind of chewed up,” he whispered, gesturing to several dirt- and cobweb-smeared glass panels and a broken railing. The Cliff House, we speculated, hadn’t quite gotten to its spring cleaning for the year.

Moving our attention to the menu, we considered a number of attractive-sounding entrées, including the “award-winning” prime rib and a grilled sea bass with tropical fruit salsa. However, the balmy evening encouraged a lighter meal, and we ended up selecting our dinner entirely from the appetizer and salad sections. A large jumble of piping hot calamari arrived first. Fried with slim strips of onion and red bell pepper, the tender cephalopods were served with a perky ancho chile sauce that we dipped into with abandon. A spinach salad, dotted with spiced pecans, bacon and crumbles of goat cheese, featured ambrosial, garnet slices of port-poached pears and was napped with a warm honey Dijon dressing. The Dungeness crab Louie was very simple, composed of romaine lettuce, chunks of crab and a handful of hard tomato wedges.

The star of the evening, however, was the kitchen’s spectacular bruschetta. A stack of fragrant grilled garlic toast arrived with a large bowl of a suspiciously murky-looking mixture containing bulbous pieces of garlic. We soon learned that the murkiness was the result of the addition of balsamic vinegar, and to our greater delight discovered that the garlic had been roasted prior to being added to the appetizer. Creamy and sweet, the garlic contributed immensely to the bold, big flavors of this exceptional bruschetta.

Any calories we may have saved by eating a moderate dinner were greedily squandered on two intensely fattening desserts. The hefty turtle cheesecake was a child’s fantasy, with its graham cracker crust, thick, sticky chocolate topping, and caramel ribbons running through the smooth filling. The tiramisu looked like a small mattress, composed almost entirely of mascarpone cheese. “It’s been aerated,” our waiter told us proudly, which we took to mean that the cheese had been whipped to lightness. There were no discernable layers in the tiramisu, which we found somewhat perplexing. The ladyfingers that encircled the mascarpone cheese mixture had been expertly dipped in espresso and dark rum, so we nibbled around the outside of the dessert, finishing off the cookies, and left a white, shapeless mass of filling sitting forlornly on the plate.

Rubbing our stomachs, we noticed with a gasp that the sky stretching across the lake had turned a dove gray, shot through with fiery carnelian flames. It was time, we acknowledged ruefully, to relinquish our table to another lucky couple.                                                                
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