Another pretty face

I had stopped at the abode of some friends to visit their new baby, Eli Lincoln Masket. Eli’s father, Seth, and I go back a ways, having been roommates in Washington, D.C. An old favorite of ours was a Tex-Mex place called Cactus Cantina in Northwest Washington.

“You know we went to Cactus Cantina while we were out there,” said Seth, of his recent cross-country tour.

“Yeah?” I responded.

“Oh my God. It sucks now,” he said in his best Keanu-like voice.

“No way!” said I.

“Way!” said Keanu.

“Well, there you go,” I said, closing a mental coffin on a restaurant that had once been dear to me.

And so restaurant eulogies go. It seems an inevitability that beloved restaurants go downhill. It is as if some invisible force pulls them toward mediocrity, much like gravity pulls us earthward. This ubiquitous force, I believe, is responsible for everything from mission creep to continental drift to the erosion of marriage. For sure, I thought it responsible for my first two visits to the Tower Café—but more on that later.

According to prevailing wisdom, Tower Café is one of the best spots to frequent in Sacramento. Its lush tropical décor, sublime al fresco patio and eclectic menu have earned it rave reviews from local press, including a four-star rating from this very publication in 1999. Despite its relative youth (established Earth Day 1990), one might even call Tower Café a Sacramento institution. After all, how many restaurant proprietors evoke environmentalism and globalism in one fell swoop, as Jim Seyman does?

“I started an idea to create a place that would be Sacramento’s own little global village—a place where everyone could share and celebrate history, culture and community, where our hearts, minds and appetites would convene with family and friends and join ‘the pattern which connects’ our many differences to the Mother who sustains us all—our good earth,” writes Seyman on Tower Café’s Web site.

I can’t argue with the man on concept. I fully support a global village eatery, although I prefer the term “equatorial fusion,” having scoured the menu—which seems part Latin, part Caribbean and part Southeast Asian.

Conceptual correctness aside, how is the food, really? From initial visits to Tower Café, I thought the food merited just two stars rather than four, after which I stopped ordering the food and just went for drinks. I’d heard mixed reviews from other folks too, after which I assumed that the restaurant had succumbed to a type of languor to which excessively beautiful people often fall. Their outer beauty tends to make them rather vain and useless.

I sought to find the truth. Was Tower Café just another pretty face, a restaurant resting on past glory? Or were these lesser experiences fleeting anomalies, not expressive of its true brilliance?

A warm spring evening: Our attentive, friendly waiter brought our drinks right away—a Sudwerk pilsner on draft and a Husch Chardonnay, selected from a choice of 40 international beers and 30 or so mostly California wines. We began with two difficult appetizers, a chili (sic) relleno and crab cakes. The relleno was excellent. A poblano chile was stuffed with a modest amount of jack cheese and pine nuts, fried in a light crisp batter and served with a refreshingly spicy pico de gallo. Tasting it, I finally understood why people eat rellenos. They don’t have to be swimming in cheese and grease. The crab cake, however, was disappointing. Overly large chunks of scallions and peppers invaded the amorphous mélange, obscuring the delicate crab flavor, which was further drowned out by too-spicy chipotle aioli.

The Jamaican jerk chicken, a signature dish with 18 spices, chilis and citrus juices, was moist and flavorful, and was nicely complemented by a spicy chutney salsa. The special of the day, a poached halibut stuffed with cultivated mushrooms in a white-wine butter reduction, was likewise impressive. The meatiness of the mushrooms played off the tenderness of the fish, with the reduction serving as a perfect, rich broth-bath to both. The sides, however, were less creative and less well executed. A zucchini squash medley had an assertive flavor, but the Spanish rice was an average tomato-ey affair. Mashed potatoes were simple, but the eggplant was bitter and the carrots undercooked.

Tower is one of those restaurants where it’s hard to feel truly satisfied. It offers interesting menu items, and you see glimpses of four-star-ness. But always, something falls short: An appetizer here, a side there. Unequivocally, there is much to enjoy and recommend about Tower Café, but four stars it ain’t. For now, Tower Café will have to live with being just another beautiful face—attractive and alluring, but really not all that.