When the weather outside is frightful and you’re jonesing to eat something delightful, there’s nothing like old-fashioned comfort food to take the chill off. We looked to some of our favorite local restaurants to find the best dishes for these cold winter days.
Winter in the foothills can be a chilly, rainy affair. So it stands to reason that chef Eric Alexander would take special care when devising a winter menu of hearty, warming fare for Restaurant Josephine, the French-inspired bistro in Auburn that he recently opened with his wife, Courtney McDonald. Take, for instance, the French onion soup. Alexander cooks sliced sweet yellow onions over low heat for hours to slowly caramelize. When the onions reach a dark mahogany hue, he deglazes the pan with brandy and adds a rich, fortified veal-and beef stock perfumed with cloves. The soup gets a dash of sherry vinegar for brightness and is ladled into an earthenware crock, topped with a slice of toasted baguette from The Baker and the Cakemaker (a nearby artisanal bakery) and grated Comté cheese. The whole shebang goes under the broiler until it’s brown and bubbling. If you should burn your tongue on that first mad-hot bite of searing soup and molten cheese, that’s OK, says Alexander. It’s all part of the experience. Just wash it down with a sip of slightly chilled Beaujolais and you’ll be a happy camper. To transform the dish from a starter to a meal, you can order it with the addition of braised beef shank ($5 extra).
Looking to the snowy French Alps for culinary inspiration, Alexander put fondue on his winter menu, believing the trendy ’70s dish is long overdue for a comeback. Alexander makes his with Comté and Gruyere cheeses, white wine and a splash of kirschwasser and serves the melted cheese with baguette slices for dipping, along with fingerling potatoes, cauliflower florets, apple slices and cornichons. “It’s definitely very wintry,” he says.
Alexander and McDonald also resurrected a dish they made famous when working at nearby Carpe Vino: red-wine-braised beef cheeks. To tenderize the tough, flavorful cut, Alexander braises the cheeks all day long in red wine and veal stock, then lets the meat cool in its braising liquid overnight to intensify the flavors. The next day, it is glazed in the reduced braising liquid and served with potato puree and glazed baby root vegetables. To cut the richness, Alexander heaps a little fresh herb salad on top, along with freshly grated horseradish. Warning: The labor-intensive dish isn’t available every night; you’ll just have to take your chances and hope it shows up on the specials board when you visit. 1226 Lincoln Way, Auburn; (530) 820-3523; josephineauburn.com
Kodaiko Ramen & Bar
Honestly, is there anything more warming than a steaming bowl of ramen? We don’t think so. Kodaiko ramen shop in downtown Sacramento is a collaboration between Kru’s Billy Ngo and former San Francisco chef Takumi Abe, who came up with a spot that combines Ngo’s signature culinary jujitsu with Abe’s knowledge of Japanese cuisine, acquired from nearly three months spent eating his way through Japan’s ramen shops. On the “something for everyone” theory, they offer a number of broth options, including tonkatsu (pork bone broth), mushroom paitan made with cashew cream and vegan shoyu broth. Some ramens come with meat (chicken or a piece of pork belly), others with tofu and seasonal roasted vegetables such as baby turnips, yams, Thumbelina carrots, kabocha squash and Brussels sprouts. You can also order add-ons, including a poached onsen egg, kimchi or double noodles. (The extra noodles come on the side so they don’t soak up all the broth.)
Then there are the surprises, like the Reuben mazemen, a brothless ramen based on the flavors of a Reuben sandwich. Hot noodles are served with pastrami-cured pork belly, along with smoked white cheddar, onsen egg, kimchi mayo, caraway breadcrumbs and shaved cabbage in a caraway vinaigrette. It’s crazy how much it tastes like a Reuben, and the dish is plenty saucy, so you can still slurp your noodles.
For seafood lovers, a scampi-like ramen pairs a light citrus shio broth with lobster or King crab poached in miso butter sauce. “It’s really rich and buttery,” says Abe, “but not overly so.” And a special ramen bowl features raw Wagyu beef slices with an onsen egg and truffle onion jam.
The restaurant has the cozy vibe of an underground lair, with old brick walls and dim lighting punctuated by candlelight. Hot sake warms things up nicely on a cold evening, and you can also order a seasonal cocktail from the full bar. 718 K St.; (916) 426-8863; kodaikoramen.com
Beast + Bounty
Most chefs love the warm-weather months for the abundance of fresh produce they provide. Brock McDonald is a contrarian: He adores winter fare. “I’m a big fan of cooking food that takes way too long,” says the chef at this live-fire restaurant in Sacramento’s midtown. “I like braising things and making stocks and broths—all those things you want to stay away from in spring and summer.”
The heart of the restaurant is the 7-foot-long hearth where McDonald and his staff roast, smoke and char the proteins and vegetables for which Beast + Bounty is justly famous. The thinking behind this restaurant, which opened in 2018, is to give equal weight to both meat and non-meat dishes. “At a lot of restaurants, vegetarian dishes seem more like sides,” says McDonald. “We focus on coming up with vegetable dishes that are a full meal.”
Take red kuri squash, a hard winter squash that gets roasted whole and grilled over the wood fire, then served with peppers, potatoes and fried sushi rice cakes in a red curry sauce. (Red kuri red curry—get it?) The dish is, for lack of a better word, meaty. “Winter squash is a hearty vegetable, so it works great at the center of the plate,” McDonald explains. Another hefty vegan dish stars broccoli grilled on the hearth and served with miso Kewpie mayonnaise, furikake and pickled green daikon. Order a couple of dishes like this, along with the seductively doughy, freshly baked Parker House rolls and cultured butter with smoked Maldon salt, and you won’t even miss the meat.
But if you’re an omnivore, you should try at least one of the dishes from the beast side of the menu. McDonald cures, smokes and braises a full-sized short rib that measures 8 to 10 inches in length, a Flintstonian cut of meat that puts other, daintier short ribs to shame. He also serves a best-of-duck-parts dish, searing the breast in a pan, curing the leg and braising the thigh.
Or you could just order a pizza and a half dozen oysters and call it a day. In the winter, McDonald thinks kushi oysters are the way to go. “They’re super briny, kind of thick, with a lot of body to them,” he says. 1701 R St.; (916) 244-4016; eatbeastandbounty.com
Salad probably isn’t the first thing you think of when it comes to winter dining. But for Brad Cecchi, the chef behind this critically acclaimed restaurant in East Sac, salad can be the perfect winter dish—if you do it right. He starts with a half head of treviso, a bitter lettuce with long, variegated red leaves. To tamp down some of that bitterness, he sweetens it up with a cranberry vinegar gastrique, then adds creamy Green Goddess dressing, using a heavy hand to layer lots of dressing onto each leaf. The salad gets crunch from radishes, sweetness from persimmon and texture from bacon-duck cracklings. Finally, Cecchi adds a sprinkle of higiki, a black seaweed that adds unami and, well, just looks cool. “It’s a really satisfying winter salad,” Cecchi notes.
That’s the sort of thinking you’d expect from a chef who has won praise from the Michelin guide, which singled Canon out for a Bib Gourmand nod in both 2019 and 2021. Canon is known for its shareable plates of thoughtful food, such as house-made potato tots, stacked in a pyramid and served with a rich mole, and chicken drumsticks in a puddle of urfa chili sauce. You’ll definitely want to have a few friends along to share the platter of smoked chicken. Cecchi cooks a whole spatchcocked chicken on a big smoker outside the restaurant, then drizzles it with a delicious fermented squash honey. Herb butter and fried squash chips finish the presentation.
For another wintry twist, Cecchi serves a pork belly chop, an unusual cut of meat you’re not likely to see anywhere else. Sourced from Rancho Llano Seco in Chico and supplied by V. Miller Meats, a whole-animal butcher in East Sac, the chop is a big piece of belly with the rib bone still attached. “You get twice the amount of meat, plus the same amount of fat, as regular pork belly,” explains Cecchi. For a fun presentation, he frenches the bone and leaves on the skin, which puffs up when cooked. Served on a bed of parsnip puree with lemon-apple mostarda, walnuts and dill, it’s a dish that practically screams winter. 1719 34th St.; (916) 469-2433; canoneastsac.com
Rich risottos and creamy pastas are tailor made to take the chill off winter. At this lovely restaurant, located inside the boutiquey Hotel Winters, you can eat your fill of carbs, cream and cheese, prepared deliciously by 34-year-old chef Dan Nguyen. He has a diverse culinary background, with experience cooking French, contemporary American, Irish and Japanese cuisine and stints at two highly regarded San Francisco eateries—Boulevard and EPIC Steak—under his belt. Those experiences show in the food at Carboni’s, where Nguyen creates classic Italian flavors featuring contemporary techniques and upscale presentations.
The pastas here are all house-made. On the menu since day one, tagliatelle alla Bolognese is a tangle of noodles sauced with a rich, long-simmered, wine scented pork-and-beef ragu. Another hearty pasta, rigatoni al forno, features large, barrel-shaped tubes of pasta in garlic cream sauce with fennel sausage (made, of course, in-house). A recent addition to the menu, pasta rotolo di melanzane, is a cross between lasagna, cannelloni and eggplant Parmesan. A sheet of pasta is spread with roasted eggplant puree, rolled up like a cinnamon roll, topped with cheese, baked and served with tomato sauce. “It’s one of our more rustic, homey dishes,” Nguyen says. “When you eat it, you feel warm inside.”
Nguyen elevates risotto with his artistic take on a winter forest scene. A pan-seared confited duck leg is perched in a bowl of risotto tinted bright green from the addition of broccoli pesto, with confited mushrooms scattered around. The green risotto resembles moss and grass, Nguyen explains, and the golden duck leg a tree stump in the woods.
Lightly dressed bitter winter greens accompany roasted spot prawns tossed with butter, garlic and chilies. Hearty meat dishes include a Wagyu bavette steak with red wine jus, and a pan-seared pork chop served with butternut squash roasted in pork fat and a flourish of pumpkin seed granola.
Carboni’s is a relatively new addition to Winters’ small but growing culinary scene. It opened in January 2020, just in time for the pandemic, and had to close for a while. But it’s now finding its footing in this small town, and it provides Sacramentans with another close in alternative to driving to San Francisco for upscale, chef-driven food. 316 Railroad Ave., Winters; (530) 505-9125; carboniswinters.com
When Joon Market in East Sac opened during the height of the pandemic, it made quite an impression on Sacramento: Readers of this magazine recently voted it best new restaurant and named owner Seth Helmly best up-and-coming chef. Helmly and his business partner (and fiancée), Saba Rahimian, are a new breed of young restaurateur, introducing local diners to things like pét-nat wines and breads made from heirloom grains. Unfortunately, Joon fell victim to the pandemic; in January, after little more than a year in business, the owners announced plans to close the restaurant after final service on Feb. 11.
Originally from Texas, Helmly combines his love for live-fire cooking with an interest in cuisines from around the world. For a deceptively simple vegetarian dish, he roasts sweet potatoes in their jackets, then cuts them into wedges and cooks them on a wood grill until they’re charred and crisp, with a tobacco-y whiff of smoke. Helmly serves the wedges with an earthy salsa macha of nuts, seeds and toasted chilies (think dried chili pesto), and garnishes them with queso fresco, pickled red onions and cilantro. Another vegetable dish is a colorful play on tater tots, made with red beets and Nantes carrots in place of the traditional spuds. Fried to order, these tots come with whipped chevre, chives and chilies. Both dishes are meant to be shared.
Shakshuka—a tomato stew with Northern African, Israeli and Middle Eastern roots—is a popular breakfast offering in American restaurants, thanks to the poached egg traditionally nestled on top. Helmly makes a dinner version, featuring pork-and-lamb meatballs in a charred tomato sauce seasoned with cumin and coriander and topped with feta and an herby salad of mint, parsley and cilantro. Served in a cast-iron pan, it too gets the addition of an egg, cooked in the stew right before serving.
But food doesn’t have to be piping hot to be winter fare, says Helmly. “I like spicy things if it’s cold outside,” he notes. “It warms me, inside and out.” For a fusion-y take on Thai papaya salad, he tosses strands of steamed spaghetti squash with watermelon radish, shaved carrots, toasted cashews and a sprightly Vietnamese nuoc cham dressing. “It’s super bright and spicy and wakes up your palate,” he explains. 5401 H St.; (916) 389 0025; joon-market.com
Pizza generally isn’t associated with a season—most of us are quite happy to scarf it down any time of year. But at Guantonios, an artisanal pizzeria operated out of a remodeled Texaco station in Lodi, the pies coming out of the wood-fired oven just may be the perfect cold-weather comfort food: charred and blistered on the edges, soft and chewy in the middle. Owner Nick Guantone opened the place during the pandemic with his partners, wife Marissa and parents Shelly and Nick Sr. A culinary school graduate and restaurant industry veteran, Nick Jr. serves a 14-inch New Jersey-style pizza that’s crunchy, thin and perfect for sharing. He makes his naturally leavened dough with organic local flour, mixing it by hand, and he’s positively fanatical about sourcing high-quality ingredients from nearby producers, including crushed tomatoes from the Cortopassi family in Modesto, Calivirgin olive oil from Lodi, and fresh cheese from Double 8 Dairy in Petaluma. Toppings range from the straightforward (pepperoni) to the more adventurous (confited potatoes). For an added kick, you can order any of the pizzas “Nick’s way,” with the addition of fresh ricotta and a tangy hot honey sauce made with scorpion peppers and vinegar.
Pizza isn’t the only thing coming out of that wood oven. Guantone also uses it to roast seasonal vegetables such as 898 squash, a soft-skinned, creamy-fleshed hybrid variety grown by local farmer Marcus Ochoa. Guantone poaches the squash, then throws it onto the oven floor to blister and caramelize before serving it with whipped crescenza cheese, toasted coconut dukkah and date syrup. Guantone offers a couple of meat options as well. You can get a thick slab of porchetta with apple mostarda and salsa verde or an occasional special such as a pastrami-spiced rib-eye steak, accompanied by house-made Worcestershire and horseradish sauce. Guantone rounds out his cold-weather menu with a number of salad options, including kohlrabi/mandarin with poppy seed dressing, persimmon Caprese and beets with buttermilk. “I like to keep the food light and fresh, even though it’s wintertime,” he explains. 600 W. Lockeford St., Lodi; (209) 263-7152; guantonios.com
Mom had it right all along: Nothing takes the chill off like a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Dunk. Eat. Repeat. That was the drill when you were a kid, and it’s still on-point at this cheese-centric eatery in midtown Sacramento.
Everything that comes out of The Rind’s microscopic kitchen has something to do with cheese, from the appetizer boards to the desserts. There’s an entire section of the menu devoted to grilled cheese sandwiches, such as The Twisted Classic (Black Diamond five-year cheddar on sourdough) and the T-Brie-D (brie, apple, prosciutto and salted caramel sauce, also on sourdough). The Hot Bufala is a grilled cheesy twist on hot buffalo wings, with two cheeses (Bergamino di bufala and gorgonzola dolce), roasted caulif lower drizzled with Frank’s Hot Sauce, fresh celery and pickled shallots. The sando pairs nicely with a cup of roasted tomato soup, scented with thyme, oregano and basil and served with a Parmigiano-Reggiano crisp.
If grilled cheese is too juvenile for you, how about an elevated mac ’n’ cheese instead? The Rind serves five versions, including one with lobster, four cheeses and sautéed criminis. The butternut squash mac is made with Comté cheese, roasted squash, chili sage pesto oil and herbed breadcrumbs, and an apple version features Grafton maple smoked cheddar, caramelized Granny Smith apple and maple glazed prosciutto. All the macs come in a little iron skillet—cute!
The Rind invested heavily in outdoor seating during the pandemic, so you can eat and drink comfortably on the streetside patio, warmed by a gas-fired heater. If you’re still cold, you can buy a fleece throw for $7. At the end of the evening, take it home or leave it behind for one of our city’s unhoused citizens. Your call. 1801 L St.; (916) 444-7463; therindsacramento.com