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British novelist George Eliot once offered an observation on the importance of being true to oneself. “Decide on what you think is right,” she advised, “and stick to it.” Several chefs in the Sacramento region have embraced this advice. In sticking to what they feel is right, they have created a personal style of food that is honest in flavor and respectful of the integrity of its ingredients.
One such chef is Kurt Spataro, longtime partner in the region’s Paragary restaurant empire. The newest Paragary eatery, Cosmo Cafe, is a prime example of the earnest, appealing cuisine that has won the Paragary Restaurant Group accolades and a loyal customer base. Quiet, thoughtful and intense, Spataro has always focused on his staff, his menus and the ingredients he sources with singular passion. If a vegetable can be purchased from a small, family-owned local farm, that’s where he’ll buy it. If something can be made in-house, whether it’s sausage, cheese, bread, pasta or, as in the case of Cosmo Cafe, cured salmon pastrami and sauerkraut, he and his staff will make it by hand.
Spataro’s straightforward vision of quality and integrity shines through at Cosmo Cafe, a sophisticated, strikingly designed restaurant located within The Cosmopolitan, the K Street Mall’s glitzy new “social hub” with a 200-seat cabaret-style theater and upper-level nightclub. Inspired by the sleek delicatessens of New York’s theater district, the space boasts a dazzling, intricately laid black and white tile floor, offset by luxuriously upholstered chartreuse bar stools. Lovely high ceilings and lots of windows lend the space an airy, roomy feeling, and velvety, fawn-colored wood paneling gives it the flavor of a Mad Men-style boardroom. A beautiful backlit photo on one wall depicts the original structure in its first incarnation as the Woolworth Building, and other enlarged photographs show local downtown landmarks as they appeared in the 1950s. It can be a discomfiting exercise to study the black-and-white shots, portraying a vibrant period in downtown Sacramento’s history, and then cast your eyes outside at the gray grittiness of K Street. Focus instead on the amusing caricatures of political figures, both past and present, that hang on the walls.
The space’s clean, crisp lines and simple, dramatic colors provide an elegant backdrop for Spataro and Chef Scott Rose’s cuisine. The menu couldn’t be more honest and approachable, offering sturdy, upscale comfort dishes. Among the memorable highlights: the Reuben sandwich, a crusty treasure that ended my decade-long quest for a great Reuben in the Sacramento region. From between earthy slices of seeded rye oozed tangy housemade sauerkraut, a generous dollop of sweetish Russian dressing, thick, succulent slices of house-cured corned beef and melted Swiss cheese.
Spataro’s carefully selected vegetables were showcased in a delicate organic roasted beet salad: jewel-like chunks of beet were arranged prettily with feathery greens, toasted pistachios, creamy avocado and bits of sharp feta cheese. A gorgeously grilled salmon fillet, served with mustard-herb butter, was rounded out by sweet caramelized apple slices. A bright, lemony chicken piccata was a vivacious bite of sunshine on a gloomy, rainy day. Other not-to-miss dishes were the juicy Cosmo burger and the kitchen’s “simple is best” pièce de résistance: housemade (of course) egg fettuccine, topped with a beef ragu that knocked my socks off. And Spataro’s prowess with meats was evident in his ravishing house-smoked sausage, served up with whole-grain mustard, roasted fingerling potatoes and sauerkraut.
Spataro and Rose’s robust dishes leave you little room for dessert, but try to hold out for the wonderfully cozy butterscotch flan, served with oddly salty but pleasingly granular hazelnut brown butter cookies. The New York cheesecake was perfectly creamy, with a crumbly graham cracker crust.
If you are tired of leafing through multipage wine lists, as I sometimes am, you’ll smile at the simplicity of Cosmo’s list. There are only four Cabernet Sauvignons, for example, and eight Chardonnays. The wines-by-the-glass list is even briefer: one sparkling wine, one Zinfandel. But it reflects the compact size of the food menu, and I appreciated its brevity.
Figure out what is true for you. If it involves nourishment for mind, palate and body, head to dinner at Cosmo Cafe, followed by a rollicking theatrical performance at The Cosmopolitan Cabaret. I am confident George Eliot would approve.
Hair of the dog: The late-night menu includes “remedy” beverages like The Cure (with milk thistle, “which helps your liver rebuild cells that are damaged from drinking”)
Dinner theater: Seeing Forever Plaid at the cabaret? You can order several of Cosmo Cafe’s small plates, including the house-cured salmon pastrami and the artisan cheese plate
1000 K St., Sacramento; (916) 446-9800; paragarys.com l Hours: Lunch Tuesday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Saturday–Sunday noon–2 p.m., dinner Tuesday–Wednesday 5–10 p.m., Thursday–Friday 5 p.m.–3 a.m., Saturday 3:30 p.m.–3 a.m., Sunday 3:30–9:30 p.m., closed Monday l Prices: $$–$$$