The Surprise of Sabio on Main
I sheepishly confess that before a couple weeks ago, I had never dined in Pleasanton.
It was a city I merely drove past on the way to somewhere else.
I only felt a little less embarrassed by that after Chef Francis X. Hogan told me that he had been in the same boat. Living in Oakland and fresh off heading the kitchen at San Francisco’s Bluestem Brasserie, he scratched his head when he got approached to open a new restaurant in this city three years ago, which he had associated merely with strip malls and car dealerships.
When he got invited to tour the area, though, he found his eyes opened wide. Surrounded by undulating hills, it boasts a charming, most walk-able downtown full of restaurants, small businesses, and residents who regularly flock to it on weekends.
“I fell in love with the area,” he told me. “It feels like old Sonoma.”
Not only that, but some of the Bay Area’s most cherished farms including Frog Hollow Farm and Zuckerman’s, are just minutes away. Or as Hogan likes to brag, “They stop in Pleasanton first before continuing on to San Francisco.”
I had a chance to try it for the first time when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. It is named for the Spanish king, Alfonso X who was known as el Sabio (“The Wise One”). The restaurant bills itself as a tapas place, but it’s not Spanish in the strictest sense. The food borrows from many more parts of the world. But the convivial approach to tapas in terms of sharing plates is definitely evident.
On a warm summer night, you can dine al fresco on the patio right outside the front doors. Inside, the dining room makes you feel as if you’re sitting inside a wine barrel with its arched ceiling covered in planks that look like staves.
This is the type of place where you can drop in to grab a seat at the bar for a few snacks and a glass of wine. Or go full bore and order the chef’s tasting menu, which Hogan says is the only one offered in the Tri-Valley region. You do have to reserve the $99 tasting menu ($50 for beverage pairing) 24 hours ahead of time, though. But it’s worth doing so, as I found out that night.
It’s about 10 courses, and starts with a rapid succession of small bites following a bracing amuse of oysters on the half shell with paddlefish caviar.
Quite a few of the tasting menu items come from the regular menu, so this is a fun way to try a lot of things at once. That includes the chicken meatballs with fingerlings, a hard-boiled quail’s egg and olives threaded on skewers. The meatballs are juicy and shot through with a lot of lime.
Deviled eggs come standing at attention, stuffed with fluffy, sweet crab meat and another dollop of paddlefish caviar.
Pork belly gets paired with butternut squash, apple butter, pomegranate seeds and finely chopped hazelnuts. Crisp, unctuous and sticky, it reminded me surprisingly of Chinese pressed duck in texture and nutty goodness.
Salt cod croquettes are golden on the outside, and fluffy inside, with an assertively delicious ancho chili romesco that’s big on earthy and peppery notes.
Chiogga and Cylindra beets from Santa Cruz are garnished with beet powder and beet stem marmalade (how clever is that?). The beets are garnished with creamy soft stracciatella cheese, crunchy cocoa nibs that play up the earthy notes of the beets, and charred kumquats that lift the dish with smoky sweet-tartness.
Next it was a slab of Japanese hamachi, seared gently only on the outside and left raw within, done up with floral gently sweet-tangy umeboshi caramel.
I can never resist house-made pretzels. Here, they are done as little nubbins or bites, and served whimsically with “Cheese Whiz,” a fondue-like crock of white cheese sauce. A couple orders of these with a cocktail would be an ideal way to unwind after a hard day at work.
Lamb neck is one of those prized lesser cuts that you don’t often see on menus. Braised properly, as it was done here, the meat is as tender as any short ribs with bold lamb-iness. Freekeh tabbouleh is more substantial and nuttier tasting than typical bulgar. Preserved lemon yogurt brings everything together.
An apertif of hibiscus and sparkling water comes out next, with the server squirting lavender hydrosol over the top of the glass after setting it down. It’s light, citrus-forward, a little tart, and just a touch sweet.
Then comes 28-day aged Rancho Alena fillet with potatoes fermented in salt water to tighten their texture and heighten their flavor. The beef, served with charred broccolini and bernaise sauce, has a concentrated beefy flavor that just fills your mouth completely.
The kitchen makes its own bread, including the brioche and pumpernickle toast points stacked in a tower that come with the cheese course, a small wedge of Stepladder Creamery’s Ragged Point cow’s milk cheese that’s velvety, peppery and almost brie-like in softness.
A showstopping Valrhrona domed cake arrives with a hard chocolate shell with two layers of chocolate cake inside separated by chocolate cream. Served with Cara Cara segments and whipped cream, it’s like a fanciful Ding Dong that no chocoholic will ever be able to resist.
Dinner ends with passion fruit pate de fruits and mint chocolate truffles sprinkled with sea salt.
What a way to get to know Pleasanton.