Enotria brings fine, fine dining to Sacramento
Here’s what I like about Enotria: it’s personal, it’s surprising, and it’s playful. Enotria could be described as sexy: it serves food that is intelligent, stylish, enticing and oh yes, just a little naughty—and I like Enotria the way I like my partner: out of the ordinary and yet presentable to parents.
MK and I have one of those boring lesbian relationships. We never fight anymore. After ten years together, we’ve settled into a kind of contented disgruntlement with each other’s faults. Except every now and then. Like the night before we went to Enotria.
MK and I made reservations at Enotria for her birthday, after a month of celebrating at various food establishments in Napa. We hit a lot of the big names: Bouchon, Culinary Institute of America (Greystone), Bistro Jeanty, BarBer’s Q (on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list, the high brow list of low-brow eateries).
As I remember it—and it’s entirely possible that MK has a different memory, since differing memories are not unusual regarding arguments—I asked MK what she wanted to do for the weekend, and she replied that she wanted to do absolutely nothing. I think I was cooking up a scheme of movies and dog walks and even Chinese checkers, and MK’s typical Friday-night response—who really wants to do anything over the weekend when the week has just lashed us into submission?—irritated me and I blew up.
I had a laundry list of activities that MK always prevents us from doing because she’s a homebody: we never get to go to Mass (we’re not Catholic), we never get to go skydiving (I’m afraid of both heights and flying), and we never, ever get to go to Republican fundraisers (we’re strict liberals). In that moment, I realized that MK was preventing me from living the full potential of my life. Every problem I had was directly traceable to MK’s lack of initiative on Friday nights. Why, if it weren’t for MK, I would be a millionaire! Who could blame me for being a tad snippy in my reply to her?
Somewhere in that night, I screamed that I was going to cancel the reservation for Enotria for Saturday. “You never want to do anything!” To prove my maturity, I stuck my tongue out at MK.
Of course I didn’t cancel. No one is that self-destructive.
The next day, we had lesbian make up activities: MK went to the grocery store with me (normally my task), and I went out in the yard with her and admired her flowerbed (gardening makes me light-headed). The fight wasn’t so full blown that we had to pull out all the stops: she didn’t have to cook a whole meal and I didn’t have to help her with a woodworking project.
Our reservation at Enotria was for 8:30 PM. We usually eat around 7, but don’t mind eating later. It’s so European, you know.
The lateness of our reservation, though, meant that the restaurant was out of many things, due to an unexpected rush earlier in the evening, so they could just barely cobble together a tasting menu for me. Many fine dining establishments force the entire table to choose a tasting menu, which puts us at a disadvantage, since MK is a picky eater. No offal for her, and most vegetables are off limits, because they contain an inherent ability to provide vitamins and minerals, which MK thinks might be part of a right-wing conspiracy. She claims a tenuous allergy to shellfish that may or may not be true and eschews most other fish on the premise that they all live in the same ocean. Anything that sounds slimy is verboten, as is anything that is not cooked. Smoked fish fails on two counts: raw and slimy. Rabbit, being game, tastes too gamy, as do lamb and duck.
So I appreciated Enotria’s willingness to let me have the tasting menu and leave MK to her own devices. Most upscale restaurants are rather peculiar in their belief that they know your tastes better than you do, just as I obviously know what MK wants to do for the weekend better than she does.
Fortunately for us, the amuse bouche (which one just takes, and cannot order, kind of like the results of an election), consisted of a horseradish gelatin dusted with dill crumbles, and a small garnish of microgreens. All I know is that the whole thing tasted like a softly expanding wave of wasabi without the intense heat. The cube was about an inch square, and I could have eaten fifteen or twenty of them.
A friend had gifted us with the charcuterie plate (full disclosure: the friend is the wife of the owner of Goat and Arrow Farms, which supplies the microgreens to Enotria. I work with her but don’t know her husband). As both raw and slimy things were on the platter, I expected MK to sit stoically as I gobbled the whole thing myself. However, her favorite food is salami, so she needed to deliberate. Not willing to chance missing a bite, I dug my fork and knife into the cured pigs’ jowls, the duck salami, the pate and the variety of vegetables scattered around the board. Seeing the food evaporate into my mouth, MK reached out a tentative fork and speared some pigs’ jowls. Her eyes rolled up into her head. “Oh.” “My.” “God.”
I told her that she should try the salami, deliberately forgetting to remind her that it was made from duck. I know she knew. But she also decided to deliberately ignore the gamy nature of all duck items and take a tentative taste. Suddenly, I was fighting off her fork as we vied for duck, jowl and vegetables.
Her favorite thing, though, was not the meat—but the black garlic sauce that lived as a swipe on the corner of the charcuterie board. My corner. She ignored all etiquette and reached her fork across the table to “sample” (i.e. wolf) the mild, pungent black sauce.
My seven courses started to come: I’d ordered Chicken Faux Gras, Caviar, Beef Tartare, Duck Rillettes, Scallop (singular), and a bourbon meringue for dessert. I chose the Chicken Faux Gras and the caviar for one reason: Enotria was out of all but those two starters, and the seven-course menu required two starter orders. This is not to say that I’m sorry, but only to say that I tried to order the squid but was unable to do so.
No surprise: the chicken foie gras was chicken livers, prepared with a foam/meringue side of something crunchy and savory. I liked it, but I missed my goose liver, through no fault of Executive Chef Pajo Bruich. In photos, the chicken looks rather unsavory, a kind of dull brown touched with grey, but on my plate, it was lovely, a delicate wash of neutral colors.
The best part of the dish, though, was the small yam balls on top. These weren’t little scoops of yam, but rather small bursts of yam flavor—how it was extracted from the yam itself is a mystery—encased in soft gelatin. I once made balsamic vinegar “caviar:” vinegar gelatin dripped into frozen oil, and these balls reminded me of those caviar balls. They were soft and explosive and flavorful, all yam in a package the size of lentils. Bruich excels at these molecular gastronomy creations, surprising mouth flavor explosions, and even though yam smacks of vegetable, I found myself fighting off MK’s fork once again. I tried to eat the balls with something akin to a mannerly demeanor, while simultaneously using my elbows to guard my food.
The duck rillettes was probably my least favorite dish, primarily because it seemed slightly less imaginative than Bruich’s other dishes. The rillettes consisted of duck meat that seemed to have been pulled, kind of like pulled pork, and then formed into a patty and browned. It reminded me slightly of a sausage patty, except it tasted about 1000 times better. But the presentation of the rillettes itself was a little dull.
On the other hand, the rest of the presentation sung. On top of the rillettes, a scoop of mustard seeds and apples—cut into tiny squares the size of rice kernels—garnished the rillettes, while beneath, a fricassee of fennel was browned to crisp perfection. But the best part was the small dabs of gelee that surrounded the plate—designed in color to mimic greek and piccholine olives, they also condensed those flavors into dabs the size of olives.
Oh, and let’s not forget the tarragon jelly. I like tarragon in very minute doses. Very minute. Most restaurants have a tendency to infuse the flavor into dishes, and my joy often instantly turns into disappointment, as I taste tarragon and nothing else. But this jelly—made almost exclusively of tarragon—somehow overcame that legacy. Sure it tasted like tarragon. But it was also sweet and tart, and not overpowering. I would have gladly given up my actual rillettes in order to have the same size chunk of those olive gelees topped with a glob of the tarragon jelly, and call it soup. That stuff is still making me swoon, and it’s been more than a week since I ate it.
One of MK’s favorite foods is olive, and once I let her have a little tiny taste of that gelee, I practically had to hide my plate in my lap to keep her away from it. Our lesbian make up day was quickly coming to an end as we sparred over my right to eat my own food.
The actual caviar was similar to the rillettes, in that the caviar was less spectacular than the serving accompaniments. Really, what can one do to caviar? It is what it is: small bursts of fish flavor, a lava cake version of salmon. But the potato and the sour cream? Bruich outdid himself. The potato, not a traditional crisp, was a small amount of piped mashed potatoes, with a bright hint of lemon. The sour cream was a crème fraiche pooled below. I didn’t let Mk anywhere near it. By then, I knew better. It might have been her birthday dinner, but she was the one who ordered only one course.
The beef tartare arrived and endures as my favorite course. For one thing, I pretty much had the whole thing to myself. MK wasn’t going to go near raw beef. But the sauce on top—a horseradish something—was perfection, but not nearly as perfect, if that’s possible, as the perfectly formed greek yogurt and cucumber balls on top. As our waiter opined, the greek yogurt was like dipping dots. That degrades what my taste buds experienced, though. The cucumber and the yogurt were both the size of currants, with the yogurt balls melting in my mouth while the cucumber balls burst like bubbles. I felt as if I was in some modern version of Greece, one imbued with magic, and unicorns, with little rainbows exploding in my mouth. The beef was perfectly formed, good quality beef.
My only complaint about the dish pertains to the origin of the beef—the waiter told us with pride that it came from Niman Ranch, which, although steps up from Harris Ranch, is still a conglomeration of corporate ranchers. Yolo Land and Cattle, Cache Creek Meat Company, Double Bar Oh and Lucky Dog Ranch offer meat that is not only locally raised but also grass fed. (Ok, I know that Lucky Dog Ranch is owned by the people who own Lucca’s and Roxy, but Niman Ranch is owned by the people who own Sioux-Preme Pork Products, out of Illinois. Enotria really could go more local than Niman Ranch).
My scallop arrived next, and was just that. One scallop. Perfectly cooked. Warm at the center, but just cooked enough to be considered not sushi. Perfect texture. MK’s one course arrived with it: rib eye steak, dauphinoise potatoes, cipollini onions, and that tarragon gel. Her steak was not the behemoth steak one might find at Texas Roadhouse, but about two ounces of perfectly cooked meat.
MK doesn’t like rare meat (see above note regarding raw items), but she’s specific about her taste in steak: some pink, no red. Many restaurants insist on cooking steak rare, and MK is not wont to agree that she likes her food cooked the chef’s way. Unfortunately, she’s also afraid to send steak back to the kitchen, in fear of the fabled spit revenge. No need to worry, though. Her steak arrived pink in the middle, without a trace of red. The potatoes were light and crisp, the tarragon gel flavorful but not overpowering. MK ignored the mushrooms on her plate, attempting to prove that she doesn’t like vegetables, although she managed to eat her onions so fast that I never got a taste.
My scallop arrived with a perfectly crunchy but tender risotto, and a stripe of beet on the plate, as well as miniature carrots, with the stems still attached. Fortunately for me, scallops are a shellfish, so MK was afraid of my entire dish, lest she break out in hives and miss her dessert.
We were served a lovely sorbet somewhere in there, but it’s all starting to get a bit hazy now. I was entering a food coma by then.
Dessert. By now, I was truly suffering, even with MK’s “help.” I had a bourbon meringue with custard of some sort. There was supposedly tobacco involved, but I don’t rightfully remember tasting it. I do remember feeling the custard melt in my mouth, while the meringue crunched, kind of like some sort of luscious version of Lucky Charms. MK’s desert—a tatin with apples, was a deconstructed version of the pastry. Edward Martinez—who has the distinction of a profile in Best American Food Writing, 2012, gleaned from a piece written about his troubled adolescence and shining adulthood in the Sacramento Bee—outdid himself with the pastry and the complex layering of fruit and flavor. I could barely get a bite into my stomach, but it was an outstanding bite.
While I’m name-dropping, Stan Moore, who was the sous chef at The Kitchen, now weaves a fine hand as sous chef at Enotria.
Michelin rates restaurants all over the world, but only three regions in the US: New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. There is no possibility of becoming a Michelin-starred restaurant outside of those geographic regions—Michelin failed to find enough fine dining in Los Angeles and Las Vegas to warrant further ratings after 2010. For a tire company, Michelin has an elevated taste level.
We know Michelin restaurants. We spent our entire Birthday Month in Michelin restaurants, and Enotria was as good, if not better, than all of them. Sacramento is east of the Michelin San Francisco rating area, but if it weren’t, Enotria would be working on its first star right now. There were some service stumbles—I was missing a knife at one point, for instance—and that sort of thing always throws the Michelin people for a loop. Michelin’s secret diners care about service quite a bit. But the food would surprise and entice the diners in its originality and its presentation. If Michelin doesn’t visit Sacramento, Bruich may never be able to earn a Michelin star—at least not at Enotria. Nonetheless, he’s definitely a rising star, and Sacramentans who love fine food would be well served to experience what Bruich has created in Enotria’s menu.
As for our dinner, I’m not spilling any more of the birthday weekend’s story. Suffice it to say that Enotria helped us to have more than great make-up food—we might be older lesbians, but we’re still in the game. Enotria’s menu isn’t the only thing in Sacramento that is a little wild, a little naughty and a lot creative. But it is available, Tuesday through Saturday, and you’ll even get a little afterglow.