In the mid-1980s, Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live alter ego, Fernando Lamas, smarmily informed viewers that it’s “better to look good than to feel good.” If Fernando (whose favorite salutation was “You look mahvelous!”) happened to visit Sacramento, I bet he’d make a beeline for Lounge on 20, where he’d drape himself on a couch, cocktail in hand, and admire the stylish people at this new midtown nightspot.
The brainchild of Ali Mackani (who recently closed his elegant Restaurant 55 Degrees), Lounge on 20 is stark, urban and marvelously chic. The warehouselike space provides a pulsating feast for the eyes and ears, with bright lights flashing and overly loud techno music battling aggressively with patrons’ attempts at conversation. People perch uneasily on the edges of egg-shaped, off-white chairs, trying to avoid slipping into the bucketlike seats, and low tables force them to reach awkwardly down for their drinks. The scenario made me uncomfortable just looking at it. A more advantageous seating option, especially if you want to dine: the tall, long black tables farther back in the cavernous space. It’s a better area from which to admire the lounge’s austere attractiveness, from its striking wine bottle collection, arranged sideways on a concrete wall like a graceful, frozen school of fish, to the bustling open kitchen and bar.
When we—a happy clutch of females—arrived, the host welcomed us and proceeded to demonstrate several hand gestures he has developed for women customers who want assistance extricating themselves from unwanted male attention. “If you push your hair up, this way,” he said in all seriousness, “then that means you need help. If you smooth your hair down, it means you’re fine.”
Heads reeling, we attempted to read the menu in the dim light. The cocktail list was thrilling, divided by quirky headings such as “Pants,” “Skirts” and “Summer.” Unclear as to how a cocktail becomes male or female (or appeals to one or the other of the sexes), we ordered indiscriminately and were delighted with the distinctive presentations and flavors. The Feminine Mystique, made of vodka, orchard pear and elderflower liqueurs, and lemon juice, was a crowd pleaser. So was the zingy Revolution No. 9, made with fresh ginger syrup and mint. There’s also an exciting selection of sparkling wines, from a $9 flute of Domaine Carneros by Taittinger to a $50 quaff of Dom Pérignon 1999.
But the true (and hidden) excitement at Lounge on 20 lies in its food. Looking back on our experience, I felt a certain sadness that the cuisine—innovative, solid and very well-executed—is almost completely overshadowed by the fancy light show, mind-rattling music and focus on cocktails and fabulousness.
Take chef David Boswell’s pan-roasted diver scallops (with a poached quail egg and parsnip purée), pesto-marinated hanger steak or rustic meatballs, served with a bracing tomato sauce crammed with soft cannelli beans, peas and roasted artichokes. Appetizers include fried mac ’n’ cheese, a dish I would have avoided like the plague had our gracious host not recommended it so enthusiastically. It arrived as a neat pile of pristine little browned squares, perfect for popping into your mouth. They tasted bold, clean and pleasingly textural, with none of the frighteningly greasy characteristics I predicted. A lighter-than-light fritto misto—crispily deep-fried haricots verts, celery hearts, fennel, lemon slices and rock shrimp—came with a feisty Calabrian chili aioli. And I savored an end-of-Indian-summer dish of warm pulled mozzarella cheese, topped with sweet, juicy heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with coarse sea salt.
Many of the dishes can be served as a “taste,” a “small plate” or a “platter,” a system that must be taxing for the kitchen staff but that provides endless options. I admired Boswell’s array of inviting, seasonally appropriate dishes, served in a lounge environment where they probably aren’t getting the attention they deserve. From his Dixon-raised lamb loin to the braised oxtails with celery root purée, this is food that deserves its own, less frenetic stage. Even items as basic as french fries are executed with pride and precision: The crusty pile we ordered arrived so hot we could barely touch them, and a side of grilled asparagus was beautifully cooked.
Desserts were edgier than most I’ve encountered in the region. Consider, for example, a lemon curd napoleon with a side salad of thinly sliced fennel and orange and grapefruit slices, topped with a scoop of passion fruit sorbet; or the housemade doughnuts, accompanied by a sweet, creamy corn pudding. A Lebanese goat’s milk sorbet—not your average Sacramento restaurant dessert—provided a tangy, bracing end to the evening’s impressive lineup.
Fernando can have his fabulousness; I’ll take a great meal over an air kiss any day. However, Lounge on 20 may be just the place for both of us to get exactly what we need to feel (and look) good.
Cheers: Check out the alluring assortment of “artisan” tipples
On the half shell: Oysters are served several ways, including fried, with leek and pancetta ragout, and raw, dolloped with lemon crème fraîche and Sterling caviar
1050 20th St., Suite 100 (MARRS building, 20th and K); Sacramento; (916) 443-6620; loungeon20.com l Monday–Thursday 4–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 4 p.m.–midnight, closed Sunday