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Exploring California Gold Country, Part II

Mushroom cigars at Taste Restaurant.

In the Bay Area, we admittedly get spoiled by the plethora of restaurants in our midst.

But Gold Country definitely has got it going on with good eats, too.

Thanks to the tourism bureaus in Folsom, El Dorado, Amador and Sacramento for inviting me to be their guest on a three-day trip (including meals and accommodations) to explore the restaurant scene. Here are the highlights:

Taste Restaurant in Plymouth

With less than 1,000 residents and a dusty main street so compact you would almost miss it if you blinked, Plymouth in Amador County is hardly the place you’d expect to find as stylish and creative a farm-to-table restaurant as Taste.

Chef Mark Berkner and wife Tracey, who runs the front of the house, have created nothing less than a true gem here.  It’s lured tourists from afar, locals day after day, and even merited a mention in the New York Times. The couple has a real knack for opening places in what some might deem nowhere’s-ville and turning them into destination dining. Consider that before they opened Taste, they owned and operated the St. George Hotel and its restaurant in Volcano, CA — population 115. Yes, you read that right.

Dining at Taste is a warm, welcoming experience with dishes that will delight.

You can graze on small plates or order a full-on entree. The menu changes seasonally and features house-cured lamb bacon and duck prosciutto.

Sweetbreads and waffles? Yes, yes, yes!

The night I was there, the restaurant featured a clever take on chicken and waffles. Only the chicken was swapped out for fried sweetbreads ($14) atop a vanilla-infused waffle all crowned with grilled nectarines, smoked maple syrup and salted peanut brittle. It was down-home yet uptown at the same time. An amazing dish.

The one dish that never leaves the menu is the Mushroom Cigars ($9.5). The crisp, phyllo logs hold a center of crimini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms fortified with creamy goat cheese.

The grilled Rosen Farms rack of lamb ($42) is the type of dish that makes jaws drop. Massive in size, with expertly frenched bones, it was accented with Green Gage plum chutney, pomegranate molasses and hazelnuts.

A manly lamb dish.

Tomatoes and olive oil — for dessert.

For dessert, there is the unexpected and wonderful lemon thyme pound cake ($11) with sweet tomato marmalade, olive oil gelato and 30-year-old balsamic. It’s sweet with a dash of savory.

After that meal, there was no doubt that my night sleeping at the National Hotel would be one of total bliss.

The grand hotel, all redone.

Downtown Jackson.

The 161-year-old building is located in Jackson, population of 2,000. It’s at the end of the downtown that still looks like it came right out of an old Western.

Owner StanleyLukowicz, poured millions into the two-year remodel of this grand hotel. Lukowicz kept the period style of the place, adding original artwork and furnishings in the lobby. But the guest rooms and suites have been updated with luxe touches, including heated marble-stone floors and over-sized, glassed-in showers in the bathrooms.

The lobby all done up for fall.

One of the rooms.

A light continental breakfast is included in your stay, served in the on-site deli. Also on the premises is a steakhouse and an expansive bar with an ornate tin ceiling.

Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom

Tucked away in a strip mall is where you’ll find the charming Bidwell Street Bistro, serving up seasonal, casual fare with French-California influences in a burgundy-gold hued dining room with burnished gold mirrors and plenty of wrought iron.

Bidwell Street Bistro’s braised pork belly in all its glory.

Seared local albacore.

Executive Chef Wendi Mentink has a way especially with pork belly ($15). Yes, you’ve had that popular cut so often elsewhere. Here, it’s braised to lusciousness with Fuji apples and apple cider from nearby Apple Hill, home to a profusion of apple orchards, wineries and bakeries. The dish is billed as a small plate, so you can share it. Or go to town and enjoy it as an entree, as it’s substantial enough to do so.

A special of seared albacore was cooked nicely so that it was still a little pink inside. Local squash and potatoes rounded out the plate.

If you can’t make up your mind when it comes to dessert, the restaurant makes it easy on you by offering a $9 sampler of creme brulee, profiterole, and almond financier.

Ella in Sacramento

For Executive Chef Ravin Patel, coming to Ella five years ago was a homecoming of sorts.

He grew up in Sacramento, even working in his teens at the deli and grocery store his family owned. Later, with a bachelor’s in managerial economics from U.C. Davis, he first went to work as a stockbroker before realizing his calling lay in different types of stocks. He enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City to gain a grounding in French techniques. After graduating, he worked at the illustrious The Modern for three years, before deciding to return to Sacramento to raise his own family.

At Ella, he serves up wonderfully creative fare. His family hails from the western Indian state of Gujarat, about 150 miles north of Mumbai. Flashes of his Indian heritage can be found only intermittently on the menu such as in an elegant pigeon pea and tamarind soup.

The chic restaurant sports elegant floor-to-ceiling billowy white drapes, as well as a whimsical ceiling constructed of reclaimed shutters. On a weekend night, it attracts a stylish crowd of date-night couples and Gen Xers looking to be seen.

The dramatic dining room at Ella.

The ceiling.

Grilled octopus ($15) comes to the table in an individual cast-iron pan. It’s Spain meets California — loaded with tender, smoky pieces of octopus and creamy marble potatoes, all flavored with the brightness of blood orange and heat of pepperoncini.

Seared local sturgeon ($39) is cooked protectively in caul fat to ensure it comes out succulent. Cranberry beans, gypsy peppers and fennel lend a Mediterranean touch.

Octopus goes Cal-Spanish.

Sturgeon with cranberry beans.

Don’t pass up dessert because they are done exceptionally well here. A warm chocolate cake ($8) gets new life with the addition of peanut butter sherbet. Yes, your two favorite treats in one.

Butterscotch pudding ($8) is fluffy and creamy, with a wonderful hit of salt.

Fudgy chocolate cake with peanut butter sherbet.

Butterscotch pudding.

Sleep it all off at the downtown Citizen Hotel, a stone’s throw from the State Capitol and Convention Center.

This unique boutique hotel sports 198 rooms with only a few decorated alike. Mine was done up in bold striped wallpaper with framed old-school political cartoons on the walls.

A room at the Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento.

The library sitting area off of the check-in desk.

The lobby boasts a clubby library room complete with well-appointed bookshelves and a chess set.

If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s definitely not cookie-cutter, this is it.

Yesterday: Exploring California Gold Country, Part I

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