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The Sacramento region teems with small farms raising everything from heirloom peaches and specialty citrus to grass-fed beef, nuts and more varieties of vegetables than you ever knew existed. One of the most charming restaurants using locally sourced products is teeny Magpie Caterers Market & Cafe.
Located in the recently renovated brick retail complex at 14th and R, Magpie has a casual, unassuming ambiance. The small, sun-flooded space is adorable, with rough brick walls, a single display case and a comfy counter that’s perfect for lone diners or folks stopping in for a glass of wine and a lazy chat. The wine list and the daily menu, haphazardly taped to a structural beam, are handwritten on brown butcher paper. I don’t know if it’s because owners Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr simply don’t have time to run down to Kinko’s and make some cheap copies or if they like the rusticity of their presentation, but it’s a personal touch that makes me smile.
If you’re seeking fancy fare, go elsewhere. The hallmark of this cafe is clean, simple food that tastes, well, like the best version of itself. You order at the counter, and your food is delivered to you in the order it comes out of the kitchen. Wine is served in water glasses; baked goods sit enticingly on plates next to the cash register. The overall vibe is undeniably laid-back.
Glance in the display case and you may see ravishing oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, a chunky roasted beet salad, squares of baked polenta or perky grilled endive. Carefully wrapped artisan cured meats share space with roasted vegetable and cheese plates, and it’s easy to linger indecisively as you ponder your choices.
Recently I sampled some grilled artichokes with aioli. Smoky and alluring, the ’chokes were perfect in their simplicity of preparation. The salads also sing with freshness. The grilled wild-salmon niçoise salad is an attractively arranged jumble of grilled salmon, soft potato chunks, green beans, organic hard-boiled egg and baby romaine lettuce, and the clean-tasting Oregon shrimp salad, made with organic celery and fresh basil, is a great warm-weather treat.
The menu changes almost daily, so you never know what you might find. But several dishes remain on the menu week after week. One is the succulent half Petaluma chicken for two, a dish apparently so memorable that three people (on separate occasions) said to me, “Have you tried Magpie Cafe yet? You have to order that half chicken.” Served on a bed of warm sautéed greens, the tender chicken comes with a caper-flecked green sauce whose complex flavor leaves a lingering sweetness in the mouth (contributed by the addition of fennel and mint).
Other knockouts include the Fra’ Mani Sampler, which taught me that a sandwich made with only three ingredients (no mayonnaise! no lettuce!) can still rock. Crusty ciabatta rolls were stuffed with Berkeley-based Fra’ Mani’s handcrafted Salame Rosa (topped with lively pickled red onions) and dry-cured Salame Nostrano (piled with smoky roasted red bell pepper strips). The combination of flavors was a revelation.
One evening, a fragrant linguine came smothered with so many sweet, tiny clams that it was hard to get to the pasta below; on another occasion, a cheese plate was served with a lovely tumble of dates, dried figs and a carefully fanned Anjou pear.
A fan of Magpie’s freshly baked cookies, I’ve had little incentive to try some of the kitchen’s other desserts. But I was enchanted with a Lilliputian tart I sampled one afternoon. With a sweet, tender crust encasing a nubbly fig purée, it tasted like a sophisticated Fig Newton.
Fresh, honest and simple as can be, this is food that makes you feel privileged to live in our beautiful region. If you’re ready to revel in Sacramento’s phenomenal agricultural bounty, Magpie is a great place to visit.
Spare the air: If you sit on the patio, beware: Cigarette smoke from Shady Lady Saloon next door drifts over
RT, anyone? Parking can be challenging in this busy neighborhood
Early birds: Come in the morning for a scone or breakfast sandwich
1409 R St., Sacramento; (916) 452-7594; magpiecaterers.com Hours: 7:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Monday–Saturday, closed Sunday l Prices: $