There is nothing quite as thrilling for a restaurant reviewer as stumbling across a little restaurant whose kitchen cranks out innovative, exemplary food. It’s even more exciting when the other components of the dining experience—ambiance, wine and service—match the quality and earnestness of the cuisine. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s like getting an extra-special birthday present.
It must’ve been my birthday recently, as I discovered a wonderful restaurant in Cameron Park called Redbud Cafe that made the grade in all four areas of the dining experience. Redbud isn’t new: It’s been around since September 2005, and it has quietly built an enthusiastic fan base for itself throughout the region.
Quirky, friendly and small, this family-owned restaurant is situated at the tail end of a bland-looking strip mall and across the street from a tangled patch of woods. Compact tables shaded by umbrellas spill out from the front. Inside, the sleek bar is brightened by vibrant artwork, and the focal point of the restaurant is a large pizza oven, adorned with a plaster sun that beams a warm welcome to all who enter.
Chef Gabriel Glasier cooks what he calls “the cuisine of the Sierra wine country.” His special knack seems to be taking local (and not-so-local) ingredients and playfully combining them in refreshing and visually exciting ways. Many chefs push the ingredient-combination envelope, and while a few are successful, others are not. Glasier mostly manages to walk that fine line between delightfully novel concoctions and garbled, off-putting ones. Not everything I tried worked, but much of it did.
I have never agonized over a menu as much as I did at Redbud. Anxiously flipping the menu back and forth, I had to decide whether to compose a meal from Glasier’s raft of small plates (grilled corn lollipops! ahi poketini! edamame falafel!) or choose a larger entrée. To complicate matters, there’s also a great lineup of pizzas and sandwiches. The cumin-spiced, grilled tri-tip sandwich, for example, is a staple of the menu.
One of Glasier’s more fanciful appetizers is the Loch Duart salmon and avocado cigars. Chunks of Scottish-farmed salmon are tossed with a creamy orange aioli, wrapped in strips of avocado to resemble green, striated mummies and gently arranged atop a complexly flavored, lollipop-pink watermelon gazpacho. The presentation is breathtaking, but my expectations fell flat as I sampled the beautiful composition. Flavors were muffled, and no one flavor shone through.
Vastly more successful are the phyllo-wrapped hazelnut prawns. Delicately crispy and wafting an exotic fragrance, the subtly nutty prawns are served with a rustic, garam masala-infused pear chutney. Another indulgent small plate is the Dungeness crab and brie dip, luxuriantly creamy and hot, topped with a deep-brown crust of breadcrumbs and garnished with a flouncy pile of sharply flavored micro-wasabi. Interestingly, the dip is served with a nubbly heap of olive tapenade—not something you would think to combine with such a rich, cheesy appetizer. Yet pile both on the accompanying flatbread and the result is delectable.
Salads, with their sharp, vigorous dressings, present more tantalizing options. A crinkled heap of butter lettuce, adorned with grilled asparagus, is showered with finely grated hard-boiled egg and tiny fried capers and dressed with a bracing Dijon mustard vinaigrette. The ensemble looks like a luscious green ball dress. The baby spinach and roasted beet salad, served with a crumbly chunk of pungent Humboldt Fog goat cheese, is another lovely choice.
Standout entrées include the Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork chop, topped with two thickly sliced onion rings. Languishing on a pile of garlic mashed potatoes, the moist meat is served up with grilled asparagus and polka dots of brightly colored mango purée. Other entrées are the wood-roasted portobello mushroom with Gorgonzola and crispy polenta, and California halibut with lobster ravioli. The menu, however, changes every five weeks or so.
Glasier’s wife, Jeneca, is the dessert whiz. She makes a crumbly, tangy cheesecake, served with warm, caramelized banana strips and a bouffant of whipped cream. I relished her free-form Meyer lemon tart, whose curd flowed rebelliously over the edges. Biting into its extra-crispy pastry, I realized that the dessert had been composed just moments before—a thoughtful gesture that removed any possibility of tart shell mushiness, a disappointing characteristic of many lemon curd tarts.
The fine cuisine comes with a thoughtfully composed wine list, focused on locally produced wines, and a young, well-educated staff who execute their jobs with efficiency and pride. It all adds up to a pretty darned appealing dining destination, whether you live in El Dorado Hills or Elk Grove. If the drive daunts you, just pretend it’s your birthday: Redbud is well worth the gas money.
Wine time: Redbud offers a number of interesting wine varietal “flights” and hosts occasional winemaker dinners
Order the burger: The Tillamook cheddar burger is topped with smoky grilled onions and gets a kick from spicy tomato mayo
Plan ahead: Redbud fills up quickly, especially on the weekends, so make reservations
Redbud Cafe and WIne Bar: 3275 Coach Lane, Suite A, Cameron Park; (530) 672-1299; redbudcafe.com
Hours: Lunch Monday–Saturday 11 a.m.–5 p.m., dinner Sunday–Thursday 5–9 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–10 p.m., brunch/lunch Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m.