Sacramento is many things.
An often testy political hotbed. A rich agricultural center. A place of torrid summers.
But a powerhouse of destination-dining?
Not so much.
Enter Pajo Bruich, executive chef of Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood, who aims to change that.
A native of Sacramento, Bruich came on board at the 15-year-old restaurant a year ago, following a major remodel. He’s serious about making it a must-stop for discriminating diners, having brought on board Sous Chef Stan Moore, formerly of The Kitchen in Sacramento; Pastry Chef Edward Martinez, formerly of Hawks in Granite Bay; and General Manager Jenny Yun, formerly of Per Se in New York and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.
A five-course tasting dinner is $75 while a seven-course one is $105. A la carte options also are available.
Perhaps, it’s no surprise that Bruich, a former caterer and executive chef of Lounge ON20 in Sacramento, became a chef. After all, his grandfather owned a kitchen equipment company, as well as a fast-casual burger joint in Sacramento.
Still, he knows he has an uphill climb to lure people to make a special trip from the Bay Area to his restaurant in Sacramento. To generate more fanfare, he has invited some of San Francisco’s stellar chefs to cook at Enotria this summer, including Matthew Accarrino of SPQR and Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn. On Sept. 21, Chef Mark Pensa of Acquerello will join him in the kitchen.
To spread the word even more, last week he held a media dinner in San Francisco at the Stable Cafe. I was a guest at the intimate dinner, where Bruich’s staff outnumbered the diners 12 to 8. That included bringing all their own plateware and stemware, too. After all, if you can’t lure the SF press to Sacramento easily, the next best thing is to bring the restaurant to them.
The food served that night would easily give many top restaurants in San Francisco a run for their money. The fact that it came from a chef who is courageous — or foolhardy — enough to do it in Sacramento instead made it all the more extraordinary.
The evening started with passed hors d’oeuvres that included Kushi oysters on the half shell with horseradish pearls; and smoked sturgeon on crisp sturgeon chips that were made by pureeing the flesh with tapioca flour, then rolling it thin before steaming, dehydrating and frying.
Lobster opened the meal with nuggets of meat surrounded by glistening caviar, a rich lobster coral hollandaise and compressed apples.
Hamachi belly, cured with lime zest, sugar and salt, had a lovely clean taste with a little heat from Fresno chili. I loved the puffed buckwheat seeds on the dish, which added real crunch and nuttiness.
As you can tell, Bruich’s repertoire is filled with the latest modernist techniques. There’s also amazing knife skills at work. That was no more evident than with the beef tongue, which had been brined for 48 hours, then cooked sous-vide for 24 hours, before being sliced paper thin. Can you see the impossibly tiny and precise fuchsia Fresno chili ribbon spirals on the plate? It’s as though elves had cut them. Inspired by Thai beef sate, the dish had an Asian sensibility with coconut yogurt sauce, puffed black rice soil, lemongrass custard and the flavors of five spice.
Next, a ping-pong-ball-sized house-made brioche roll with house-churned butter sprinkled with Maldon salt that was so wonderfully smooth you wanted to smear it on everything.
Chicken livers, soaked in milk and brandy, had the consistency of that impeccable butter in a spectacular looking dish. Sour plum gel and pickled plum added a counterbalance to all that richness. Strewn over the top were celery “dippindots.” Very fun, but I’m not sure they were necessarily needed, as their shock of coldness rather numbed your taste buds for the rest of the dish.
Agnolotti, filled with ricotta and corn pudding, was finished table-side with a pouring of corn consomme. The eggy pasta was properly thin and delicate. I only wish the dish had been served a little warmer, as it was room-temperature.
You know a dish has got to be quite striking if you see the cooks in the kitchen all start pulling out their phones to take pics of it before bringing it out to the guests. The pork belly was indeed that gorgeous looking. It tasted as good, too, with the Duroc belly cured for three days in brown sugar, salt and spices, then cooked with duck fat. It was juicy and porky sweet. Cornbread accompanied it — but not in any way you’re used to. Instead, this cornbread was pureed with buttermilk to create an almost custardy swoosh of sauce. Crisp pig ears and a drift of bacon “powder” added even more piggy goodness.
I’m not even that much of a beef gal, but I devoured the “Calotte de Boeuf.” Two pieces of grass-fed rib-eye cap had been melded together with “meat glue” to create one of the best pieces of beef I’d had in awhile. The meat had a robust beefiness and nice minerality. Because it was leaner, your mouth wasn’t coated with a lot of fattiness. Instead, you tasted the purity of the beef, itself. A dab of black garlic puree added even more meatiness. A mille feuille was constructed with layer upon layer of potato, each brushed with duck fat.
After all that richness, Pastry Chef Martinez said he wanted to create something light with white chocolate. The result was a white chocolate ganache with bright lemon curd, lemongrass custard, and kaffir lime foam with the herbaceousness from micro basil leaves and purple mizuna.
That was followed by his riff on an after-dinner bourbon and cigar. Only this came in a glass, in which every spoonful brought a surprise: tobacco-vanilla cream with a panna cotta-like texture, bourbon sherbert, pecan butter, bourbon gel, cornflake crumbs and teeny Lucky Charm-like dehydrated bourbon marshmallows.
The finale was an array of mignardises that included cashew nougats, vanilla madelines, and truffles flavored with porcini, which — yes — did taste subtly of mushrooms against a backdrop of earthy dark chocolate.
Will Sacramento folks embrace this refined style of cooking?
They’d be crazy not to.
More: A Visit to SPQR