In a region teeming with shopping centers and outdoor malls, it’s not surprising that some of our most enticing restaurants are sprinkled among large grocery stores, nail salons,
Starbucks coffeehouses and other retail establishments.
And while it’s easy to assume that these eateries reflect the anonymous, often bland ambiance of the centers in which they are located, the delicious surprise is that many have managed, through creativity and sheer moxie, to carve out fiercely independent, distinctive spaces that catapult diners from the mindless bustle of the crowded parking lot outside into a delightfully inviting dining environment.
Such is the case with Back Wine Bar & Bistro, a warm pocket of coziness and urban sophistication in a sprawling retail center in Folsom. It’s evident from first glance that the place is well loved; in fact, it’s been a resounding hit since it opened—originally as just a wine bar—in May 2008. Recently, proprietors Jeff and Gail Back took the plunge and expanded into the space of a former tanning salon next door. The kitchen went from a miniscule 120 square feet to about 300 square feet—still not very big, but spacious enough to accommodate the crew of four who crank out the bistro’s new menu items.
In the expansion process, the Backs acquired talented chef Michael John, who did cooking stints in Tahoe and at Humboldt County’s lauded Avalon restaurant as well as The Firehouse in Old Sacramento. John and Jeff Back have fashioned an appealing, larger menu that’s a refreshing combination of casual nibbles and swankier entrées. This gives diners the option of a quick nosh at the bar or an upscale meal in the dining area.
While the menu alone is reason enough to visit, it’s the wine program that really knocks this little bistro out of the park. Not only is the staff impressively knowledgeable, thanks to constant education by Jeff Back, a trained sommelier, but the restaurant offers a fabulous list of wines by the glass. Diners who take the time to consult with their waiter and discuss wine/food pairing options will be amply rewarded.
The food—innovative New American cuisine with Asian and Mediterranean influences—is, in a word, solid. You easily can build a meal from the menu’s small plates. The almond-crusted prawns were particularly irresistible, accompanied by an electrifying, lusty romesco sauce. We politely fought over them, eventually dividing the last nut-flecked prawn into three pieces so no one was left out. A Hawaiian ahi poke appetizer was a whimsical delight: Moist chunks of ahi tuna were carefully arranged atop sticky rice, and the ensemble was embellished with a chili soy sauce, crushed macadamia nuts and tangy-sweet pickled cucumbers, festooned with a perky tuft of shaved daikon. A technicolored beet carpaccio salad was refreshingly light, drizzled with olive oil and punctuated with capers, shallots and shaved fennel. Least appealing was a mushroom, mascarpone and caramelized onion mini pizza, which arrived as a tumble of palm-size slices. While they looked and smelled appetizing, the flavor was undeniably bland.
Steering myself away from the smaller plates, I tucked into the kitchen’s excellent flat iron steak, served with a robust mushroom risotto and sautéed spinach. Topped with an assertive blue cheese butter, it was a hearty entrée for a chilly late-autumn evening. The sesame-crusted yellowfin ahi was beautifully presented with a crusty ginger-scallion rice cake and an exotic tropical fruit salsa. Robust linguine, shellacked in that same delicious romesco sauce, was tossed with toasted pine nuts, olives and artichoke hearts—a perfect partner for the glass of Oakville Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon sagely recommended by our waiter. An elegant chicken confit was another winner: The leg and thigh had been braised with duck juices, then served with creamy cauliflower purée and an earthy chive-mushroom jus.
Desserts were, unfortunately, uneven. The star of the bunch was a sumptuous triple pot de crème: tasty vanilla custard topped with silky caramel and dark chocolate ganache, lightly sprinkled with sea salt. But the bananas Foster was plain and achingly sweet, and a chocolate tasting plate, though interesting in theory, went virtually untouched.
As a food reviewer, I find it a pleasure to stumble across a thriving neighborhood restaurant that’s plating up earnest, flavorful fare. And while Back Wine Bar & Bistro is a good 40 minutes from my house, I’ll be back soon to enjoy more of chef John’s cuisine—expertly paired, of course, with a glass or two of wine.
Photo above: Almond-crusted prawns by Rachel Valley