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Café Americain courtyard opens

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Another thing to put on your list of new reasons to visit Old Sacramento: Café Americain and its new courtyard.

Sacramento’s only champagne and caviar house —which also features raw food cuisine — was created to capture the elegance and allure of a legendary restaurant once run by a notorious Bay Area madam.

The owners, Mike and Natalya Wahba, are hosting a grand opening for their lunchtime courtyard this weekend. The restaurant opened for dinner in December. Starting Saturday, the brick patio courtyard behind the historic Booth Building will be open for lunch four days a week.

Executive Chef Heather David will oversee preparation of innovative raw food dishes, while chef James Clark sets up a small farmer’s market and juice bar outside.

The Carmichael couple said the restaurant wasn’t in their plans when the building was bought in 2002. Mike Wahba, a commercial real estate developer, bought the Front Street building that once housed California Gov. Newton Booth’s grocery store and the building next door, where Booth lived or at least threw parties.

But it’s become harder and harder to find and keep good tenants for the first-floor retail spaces, he said. Natalya thought they should open their own businesses there instead. She spent a year trying to convince her husband they should take the chance.

"I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do something special. Let’s kind of upgrade the culinary scene in Sacramento,’ " Mike Wahba said.

His dream: to recreate the kind of experience he found in the 1970s at Valhalla, the legendary champagne and caviar house opened in Sausalito by retired madam Sally Stanford.

"I’ve never had real experience in the restaurant business. But I’ve always been a really passionate diner," he said. "I’m one of those people who always looks for the ultimate dining experience."

Wahba, who grew up in Cairo as the son of wealthy Egyptian Christians, discovered the Bay Area’s food scene as a student at University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s. He found Valhalla and became friends with Stanford, San Francisco’s most infamous madam. Stanford operated elegant bordellos until a 1949 raid and then opened her Victorian restaurant overlooking San Francisco Bay. She later became Sausalito’s most popular mayor.

Like Stanford, the Wahbas created their restaurant to offer "the best of everything," Mike Wahba said.

The restaurant was named for the establishment that was the setting for the movie Casablanca. But the interior reflects the spirit of Stanford’s restaurant and fine cathouses. Café Americain is filled with antiques, oriental carpets, Versace bars and nude paintings, with multicolored chandeliers throughout.

"We didn’t want it to be too stuffy, too Old World," he said. "We wanted it to be a little bit of something different, with a retro aspect to it."

The courtyard is set just off an alley and features a fountain, ornate shade canopy, small palms and views of the historic building. To retain the historic feel, they haven’t put up a big sign, but chose instead just to have the name etched in gold on the restaurant’s white front doors. 

Natalya grew up in Ukraine. Her father made caviar by hand. She recruited other Ukrainians who brought recipes for caviar appetizers from their homeland.

They also wanted to offer local, organic, sustainable food. They recruited David, who recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Natomas. David has been working with raw foods for several years.

"Heather is a raw foods genius," Natalya Wahda said. "The things she puts out are unbelievable."

But the restaurant’s edible star is the sturgeon and caviar, which are both 100 percent farm raised in California. Café Americain gets all of its sturgeon and caviar from Sterling Caviar, which has a sturgeon farm in Elverta.

It takes 20 years for female sturgeons to reach maturity and produce eggs in the wild. But a Russian scientist who defected brought the technology to raise sturgeon in captivity here and later went to work for University of California, Davis. The caviar is considered one of the world’s best, Mike Wahba said.

Until Café Americain opened, no one here could buy the caviar or eat it at a restaurant. The caviar was all being shipped off to Paris, London and New York. Wahba wanted to bring that quality and experience to the capital.

"The closest place that was serving it was the French Laundry in Napa," he said. "It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Sacramento."

Café Americain, 1023 Front St., is open Thursday – Sunday for dinner from 5 – 9 p.m. The courtyard is now open from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Photos by Suzanne Hurt, a staff reporter covering business and development for The Sacramento Press.

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