There was a time when local foodies and out-of-towners rued Sacramento’s fondness for chain restaurants. But look around the region today and you’ll see a startlingly different picture: Independent restaurants are thriving, and chefs are organizing their menus around locally grown, seasonally available produce. Sacramentans, it’s clear, are becoming increasingly thoughtful about their food choices.
So it comes as no surprise that a restaurant like Paul Martin’s American Bistro, with its eat-organic, buy-local credo, would crop up. It was created by a team of experienced restaurateurs: Entrepreneur Paul Martin Fleming, the P.F. in P.F. Chang’s, has also established a successful national chain of steakhouses, and partners Brian Bennett and Peter Serantoni are longtime veterans of the Chevys corporation.
The Roseville restaurant opened in late October, aiming to take diners back to the American farm. The reception has been enthusiastic&emdash;I tried for several days to nab a reservation. I finally ended up at the restaurant on a relatively quiet Sunday afternoon and was smitten with the menu, whose straightforward, homey food descriptions were particularly appealing on a shivery, gray day. Equally appealing was the interior, which felt as comfortable and relaxed as my favorite, well-worn leather jacket. Handsome wood tables are ringed by luxurious chairs, and the concrete floor glistens with polish. Wine bottles are displayed in wood shelving boxes; enormous circular lamps with delicate ruffled exteriors loom gently over diners. An extensive bar stretches across one wall of the restaurant, showcasing illuminated liquor bottles in front of a beautiful brick wall. Lighting is dim, creating a cozy, cavelike ambiance that encourages relaxation.
The young waitstaff, all wearing striped shirts, were friendly and brisk, and the menu was appealing. It would be easy to build a meal around the list of small plates, ranging from house-smoked baby back ribs and grilled artichokes to buttermilk-battered calamari. There were plump Manila clams steamed in white wine and flavored with a generous sprinkling of chili flakes. The Butcher’s Board featured a selection of excellent handcrafted local cheeses and several varieties of artisan-cured meats known as salumi, including a pinkly delicate lonza (salt-cured dry pork sausage) and a chewy, flavorful fennel salami that I could have nibbled on all night.
The menu harbors few surprises&emdash;it seems chef Scott Rose’s focus is on the solidity and quality of his ingredients and building them into deeply satisfying, honest dishes. I admire this approach. It’s enticing for chefs at new, high-profile restaurants to create elaborate, perplexing menus in an effort to impress guests. It’s more courageous to select recognizable dishes like roasted skirt steak and pan-fried petrale sole (as Rose has done) and set about making them the very best way you know how.
I can’t think of a better dish on a cold, rainy evening than Rose’s braised short ribs, succulent and intensely beefy, served with buttery mashed potatoes. I was captivated by the spinach salad, tossed with warm, vibrant bacon dressing and scattered with toasted pine nuts and tangy goat cheese. The hefty BLT sandwich was prepared with delicious bacon (Nueske’s applewood-smoked), slathered with a kicky black-pepper aioli and stacked with baby romaine leaves and slices of ripe avocado and tomato. The cedar plank salmon was moist and flaky, and blanketed with a thick layer of shallots and bacon.
If your sweet tooth demands a little dessert, try chef Rose’s lemon meringue tart. Its brightly flavored lemon curd maintained a perfect tart-sweet balance, while the caramelized pouf of meringue contributed just the right touch of frothy fluffiness. The devil’s food cake, through clearly prepared from excellent chocolate, was stale the night I ordered it. Other desserts included a selection of housemade ice creams and banana cream pie, prepared with vanilla bean pastry cream and chocolate. Another after-dinner option is the restaurant’s house-infused fruit vodkas. I would recommend the wonderful spiced huckleberry vodka, whose lilting sweetness was a refreshing end to a very enjoyable meal.
Bring the kids: The kitchen serves up delicious macaroni and cheese and mini-hamburgers, and the young staff is very kid-friendly
Keep your eyes peeled: The restaurant is tucked into a long row of other, similar-looking restaurants, so it’s easy to miss
Plan ahead: For Friday or Saturday night reservations, call at least three days ahead
Paul Martin’s American Bistro: 1455 Eureka Road, Roseville, (916) 783-3600; paulmartinsamericanbistro.com
Hours: Sundayâ€“Thursday 11 a.m.â€“10 p.m., Fridayâ€“Saturday 11 a.m.â€“11 p.m.