Fish Out of Water

Musings and observations about life from an East Coast native now living on the Left Coast in the California State Capitol since 2004. This fish has made her home in Madison, WI (7 years); Portland, OR (2 years); Las Vegas, NV (7 months); Middlebury, VT (3 summers); Marne-la-Vallee, a small town east of Paris, France (6 months); Middletown, CT (3 years); and Marshfield, MA, the fish's coastal hometown 40 miles south of Boston (17 years).

Location: Sacramento, California, United States


Restaurant Review: Revolution Wines (thumbs up)

Revolution Wines (Friday 1/20 @ 7pm)
4 stars = Will return

On a very rainy and windy night, we sought refuge in the cozy environment of this local winery, choosing a table near the side window looking out at the new patio area. We were greeted warmly and promptly, and the service throughout the evening was attentive, for the most part. The only stumbling block occured when we had finished our bottle of water and had to ask twice for a refill.

Food Quality
We ordered the chef's plate of charcuterie and cheese with fresh thin crostini, homemade ciabatta bread with oil and vinegar, marinated olives, and the roasted beet salad. Our beverages included glasses of the winery's own Revolutionary Red, Syrah, and 2 different Cabs. Everything was tasty, and we especially enjoyed the castelvetrano olives in the mix (our new favorite olives - now if we could only figure out where to buy some!). The beet salad included roasted potatoes and arugula with bacon on the side (for Mr. E's enjoyment), and was just the right portion size for dinner with the other munchies. Mr. E was very pleased with the meat options on the chef's plate, and I was impressed by the little "extras" under each type of cheese - sliced apples, dried apricots, and roasted red peppers. Yum!

I had found a coupon in the News & Review for 10% off, so our total for all of the food and 4 glasses of wine was right around $70 (seems to be the magic number in our recent outings!). Revolution also has a great Friday-night pasta special each week that includes a side salad, pasta dish, and a glass of wine for $15. We decided not to take advantage of that prix fixe meal this time, but when we return on a future Friday, we may opt for that offering, depending on the type of pasta and sauce. Also, if we had been a wee bit earlier for Happy Hour 4-6pm, we could have had one of the house wines for $3 per glass. I took advantage of this offer several weeks ago when I was at Revolution with a friend earlier on a Friday evening, and the $3 glass of Syrah was yummy (regular price $7, which still isn't bad). Overall, the quality of the food and the pricing for the small plates and appetizers make this a pretty good value for wine and munchies, especially if I can find another coupon!

Menu Options
Although the menu is somewhat limited, the olives, bread, and chef's plate are reliable standbys that we could order again and again. In addition, the small plates offer a range of seasonal salads and proteins, and there were no issues with making a few modifications to our order to accommodate my food restrictions.


Restaurant Review: Michelangelo's (thumbs up)

Michelangelo's (Wednesday 1/11/12 @ 7pm)
5 stars = Will return & will actively encourage others to go

Mr. E had made reservations, and we were promptly seated at one of the small tables-for-two arranged along the front wall, very European-style. Our server, Tage, arrived soon thereafter for our drink orders and to bring some of the yummy house-made rosemary bread (warm!). We haven't been to Michelangelo's for at least two years or so, but we recognized Tage as well as the owner from previous visits. I always think it's impressive to see that sort of longevity in the restaurant business, especially among the waitstaff. Throughout the entire meal, Tage was attentive without being fussy and friendly without being false, and she didn't flinch even slightly when we modified our orders. No excessive waits, no rushing to finish one thing before another arrived - the pacing was perfect.

Food Quality
One of my favorite items at Michelangelo's is the grilled calamari steak (why don't more restaurants opt for this presentation instead of the usual deep-fried route?!). My memory of the calamari appetizer with polenta proved to be quite accurate, as Mr. E and I enjoyed this dish along with the house-smoked salmon bruschetta, sans cheese sauce. Since I had mentioned my garlic & onion issues to Tage, she made sure to check with the kitchen for each dish, and even came to let us know that the salmon rub has a tiny bit of dried onion in it. That amount isn't enough to set off my radar, so we could still order the dish, but I truly appreciated her conscientiousness and attention to detail.

The portions are quite large, so I decided to opt for the chicken and olives small plate as my entree while Mr. E ordered the lentil and sausage pasta special. Both were delicious and provided some leftovers for the next day. Mr. E swapped out the penne as listed in the special for the house-made tagliatelle, which was part of the other nightly special, and again the kitchen had no problem making that substitution and still delivering our dishes in a timely fashion (unlike during last week's dinner at Tuli...).

For dessert, Mr. E ordered the flourless chocolate cake, which was accompanied by gingerbread gelato. Divine. The gelato truly tasted like gingerbread, with flavors of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon, and the cake was rich and dense. Too dense for one sitting, in fact, so about half of the cake came home with us as well.

The total for our meal of two appetizers, one small plate, one entree, one dessert, two beers, one glass of wine, and tip was $78. Keep in mind that this meal extended into the next day thanks to the leftovers, which Mr. E and I both enjoyed for dinner the next night, so that's really $78 for two total meals. Now that's what I call value!

Menu Options
Michelangelo's has expanded the menu since the last time we visited with the selection of small plates, and I really like having this option, especially since some of the yummy appetizers are quite large. The variety assures that I'll always be able to find something tasty to order, and the chef's willingness to modify dishes to meet dietary requirements moves this restaurant back to the top of our list of venues to visit frequently. Can't wait to go back soon!


Restaurant Review: Tuli Bistro (thumbs down)

Tuli Bistro (Wednesday 1/4/12 @ 7:30pm)
1 Star = Will not return & will actively encourage others not to go

We were seated promptly at a 2-top near the bar. Our main server, Claudia, took our drink order as we started to peruse the menu. Once our drink order was placed, however, the arrival of Mr. E's beer and my glass of wine was less than speedy. Strike one.

Claudia then took our food order and communicated my garlic/onion issues to the kitchen, which led to a brief negotiation about a substitution for the risotto but concluded with assurances that another satisfactory item could be used in the dish under the scallops. Then the wait began. I noticed that a couple at the end of the bar who had arrived after we placed our order received two dishes before any part of our order appeared. During this time, Claudia continually returned to chat with a trio of diners at the end of the bar near us, but she didn't actively check in with our table. I signaled her to inquire about the status of our order, and we heard her ask the chef for the ETA on our food, to which the chef replied, "I'm just about to fire it." Excuse me? You're just now about to prepare an order that was placed at least 20 minutes ago and well before that other couple arrived who are already enjoying their food? Strike two.

Despite the fact that we could hear this interaction, Claudia did not return to update us for a few minutes, at which time she assured us our order would be ready in 2-3 minutes. Mr. E set his watch. Almost 5 minutes later, my scallops arrived along with another plate from some other table's order - not the correct entree for Mr. E! Strike three.

Food Quality
When we did finally get our correct order, we enjoyed the small portions (not unexpected) on our plates. My original entree was supposed to be scallops over beet-infused risotto with beet greens, but apparently the base of the risotto contains some garlic. The substitution provided was sauteed spinach and yukon gold potatoes. Relatively tasty, but as Mr. E pointed out, not really much more than breakfast potatoes that you can find almost anywhere. Mr. E's steak was fine but nothing special.

Our total dinner with two drinks, two entrees, and tip was $70. That's the equivalent of about three orders from Ma Jong, most of which lead to leftovers for additional meals. I understand and appreciate that using local and seasonal foods can be more costly, and I'm willing to pay more to support this type of fare and establishment, but I want something special to result from the preparation and presentation. Tuli fell far short of this expectation.

As a sharp contrast, the previous weekend Mr. E had grilled some tri-tip for himself and some fresh scallops from Taylor's Market for me, and both items turned out beautifully. Cost of 4 scallops at Taylor's = $10. Cost of 3 scallops at Tuli's = $18. The scallops at Tuli truly weren't any better than what Mr. E had prepared, so what's the point of paying double?

Menu Options
Since I have some food allergies and limitations, two important factors for me when rating a restaurant are the variety of options available to me on the menu and how flexible the kitchen is about making accommodations. I was very excited about Tuli initially since a note at the bottom of the menu indicated "Substitutions welcome," which is not a common message to diners. Unfortunately, the actual substitutions used in my dish were lacking in creativity.


2011 Themes - Food & Wine

As I was composing my Year in Review, I noticed several themes emerging from 2011, so I'll be adding some theme-based posts to the blog over the next couple of weeks. Let's start with Food & Wine...

For the past couple of years, I've had a monthly brunch outing with S, M, Ir & S. This group started as a way of staying in touch with M when she was no longer a volunteer at PP and then evolved to also include Ir & S when Ir left PP as well. I take responsibility for organizing the monthly date and trying to find a convenient time/location for everyone, usually in Midtown or Downtown Sac, since M doesn't mind driving from the Arden area and the rest of us live close to the grid. We've tried several different spots over the years, including Fox & Goose, Waffle Square, Bernardo's on 15th, Orphan, Crepeville (both Sac locations), Sweetwater, and Danielle's Creperie. The criteria for selecting a good spot include value/cost, menu variety, good coffee, and an option for pancakes (for M). Based on these criteria, I'd rate the above locations as follows, from best to worst:

  1. Orphan (meets all criteria)

  2. Crepeville (no pancakes)

  3. Fox & Goose (can get crowded)

  4. Bernardo's (minimal menu variety)

  5. Waffle Square (falls down on coffee)

  6. Danielle's (bad coffee, canned fruit)

  7. Sweetwater (minimal variety, higher cost)
Mr. E and I also enjoy weekend brunch, and although we've tried a couple of other locations (Kupros Bistro most recently), we do tend to favor Orphan, with Fox & Goose in second place.

I decided to count our total brunch trips in 2011, based on my datebook and my Outlook calendar, and for the meals that were noted specifically, the frequency definitely leans heavily towards Orphan!

Orphan - 9
Bernardo's - 4 (partly b/c Mr. E watches the Bears during footbal season, so I occasionally join him for part of a game)
Fox & Goose - 3
Crepeville - 2
Waffle Square - 1
Kupros - 1
Elixir - 1
Danielle's - 1

Home Cooking
Mr. E is always very supportive of any home-cooking efforts, and I continued my baking trend with a focus on breads. The recipe for "French bread" that comes with the Kitchenaid mixer has definitely become a favorite, although it doesn't at all produce a typical French baguette, which is what we expected. Instead, the consistency is more similar to an Italian bread, with a soft middle and crusty outside. I learned that it's best to split the recipe into 6-8 demi-loaves rather than having 3-4 large loaves, so we can have a couple in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. The most recent batch was perfect, as I made 1/2 the recipe, which resulted in 4 demi-loaves, one of which was the perfect accompaniment to our Christmas crab dinner.

When we visit France, we love to have the multi-grain baguette, so I was on a quest to find a similar recipe to mimic that flavor and consistency. I found a recipe for multi-grain, seeded, crusty bread, but in my two attempts thus far, the dough simply doesn't rise much, so the loaves are rather small and VERY dense. The flavor is excellent, but I'm going to experiment with future batches by reducing the amount of seeds and using some white flour instead of all wheat flour. I'm hoping that substitution might help make the dough less solid, so this quest continues into 2012.

We did manage to find a tasty recipe for fish tacos with an Asian-style slaw, the latter of which we also made as a side for another meal. New baking experiments included Cranberry Pecan Pumpkin Cookies from the J Vineyards cookbook (outstanding!), Figgy Pudding (very, very dense, but extremely tasty once I transformed it into bread pudding), and Carrot Pumpkin Muffins (tasty but also quite dense and hard to cook all the way through). Other ongoing favorites include Cranberry Chocolate Chip Macaroons (dark chocolate, of course), Cranberry Orange Scones and/or Apricot Scones, and Whole Wheat Pizza Dough.

Date Nights
Mr. E and I have decided that January will be our month of weekly date nights to try out some of the Sac restaurants we've talked about but have never visited. We tend to return to our favorites - Ma Jong, Orphan, Sapporo, Burgers & Brew. So on the list for new spots are Tuli Bistro, The Golden Bear, and Kru (I've been with L but Mr. E hasn't been at all). However, we've learned from past experience not to experiment with a new spot for our anniversary celebration, so for that week, we'll return to our much-loved but not recently visited Michelangelo's. Let's hope that some of the new places live up to their reputations!