Bookish brisket

Barnes & Noble Kitchen

Good for: reading magazines for free while noshing on New American food
Notable dishes: brisket burger, brick-cooked chicken, avocado toast

Barnes & Noble Kitchen

929 Via Felice
Folsom, CA 95630

Why must our food have a soul? American consumers increasingly demand that our food not just be locally grown, but have a meaningful origin story. It’s not enough to have clovers from the backyard delicately sprinkled atop poached eggs. Ideally, the chef grew up cultivating clovers. She cares about those damned clovers like little children. Above all, the chef must be singular and human—and not a corporation.

I bring this up because I am guilty of this line of thinking. I went into Barnes & Noble Kitchen in Folsom—the bookstore’s third full-service restaurant in the country—with every expectation of disliking it. Surely a big-box peddler of books can’t know how to properly grill salmon on a plancha.

Reader, I was wrong.

In the past few years, the once-giant bookseller has posted sluggish sales as it competes with Amazon and other online retailers. The business stole a move from those nimble tech entrepreneurs and pivoted last June. The first restaurant-slash-bookstore opened in Eastchester, New York, and next in Edina, Minnesota. Both are affluent suburbs. The brick-and-mortar stores offer something Amazon can’t: an “experience,” according to the press release.

In Folsom, past the tables of bestselling fiction, a circular cafe presents its drinks on an overhead menu reminiscent of a scrabble board, a subliminal temptation for the store’s word nerds. That day’s New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle hang from sticks, ready for perusing. Couches and single-serving benches call out to book-browsers to plop down with a novel, only to discover they can—why not?—get a seasonal fruit crisp. Wooden nooks display blank books to signify a literary lifestyle that is in fact a simulacra.

But let’s not blame that on the food. Executive chef Sheamus Feeley—a restaurant consultant with the Santa Monica-based Branstetter Group—created the trendy menu. In a siren call for local consumers, wines and beers from the region are on offer, including Gold Digger from Auburn Alehouse and grenache blanc from Lodi. The lunch and dinner entree list is refreshingly short, with summer spaghetti ($12), a brisket burger ($16), grilled cheese ($14), brick-cooked chicken ($17) and that plancha-cooked salmon ($22). There are also standard-issue salads, housemade dips and three breakfast items including lemon-ricotta pancakes ($10).

These dishes feel unambitious. They play it safe. After all, the name of the restaurant is “Kitchen”—how plain can you get? No one will be surprised by its take on avocado toast ($12) or chicken. But they might be taken aback by how thoroughly delicious they are.

A steel brick weighs down the chicken on the grill and traps its juices in even layers of tender meat. It’s eerily perfect in its consistency, as if a robot made it. Does it matter if a corporation cooks your food if soulless excellence tastes good? Herbed with just tarragon, pepper and salt, the chicken is surefooted in its simplicity. It’s surrounded by a mote of potato purée that is lavishly buttery and spiked with bitter watercress.

And that brisket burger. Melted cheddar glistens and cabbage flashes with the freshness of chartreuse. The ground beef fuses fat and pepper on its crisp edges. A soft, sweet brioche bun frames it. The accompanying crispy potatoes are not overly fried, but they were the weak point—if anything, these were too salty.

For a business that trades in imagination, Barnes & Noble’s food lacks it, and yet, despite myself, I still enjoyed it. When you can peruse magazines, newspapers and latest-release books for free, your menu requires less creativity. What remains to be seen is whether the retailer can be the author of its own turnaround story.