Brussels sprouts, for the win
Fair Oaks, CA 95628
Maranello Restaurant in Fair Oaks is named after a place, not the proprietors. Since the 1940s, the town of Maranello—near Bologna, Italy—has been home to the Ferrari, sports car of choice for one of Maranello’ co-owners, Joe Hensler.
Visits to the spacious eatery are brightened by chats with Joe’s bride, Gayle, and a brief conversation with the creative chef, Gabriel Glasier, formerly of Slocum House.
There’s a neighborhood hangout feel to Maranello. It’s not by accident that the phrase “Food and friends” finds itself on the Maranello marquee. Gayle’s effervescence adds to that quality, as does the élan of the bartender and servers Jennifer and Rachel, all of whom offer sound guidance in negotiating the newish menu—except for the fennel sausage and sirloin meatballs, so new that no one has yet given them a test run.
Back to this newish menu—there are a number of hits. First, always enjoyable is skillful use of Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts aren’t usually seen as the most rockin’ pairing with pork loin, but here, chef Gabe’s shredded sprouts set off the smokiness of the pork sweetly.
The pork’s presentation is also arresting, bracketed with a V of cauliflower and risotto-stuffed cannelloni. The medley of tastes ensures a very clean plate in a very short time. The word “hearty” doesn’t do this dish justice, but instead diminishes the heft of the industrial-strength short rib ravioli, which would be the perfect midwinter welcome home to a Klondike miner. The basil-sweet marinara is also a bright complement.
Someone took a wrong turn at Albuquerque on the chili pepper cod, however. Chef Gabe points out, that chili pepper cod is a type of fish, not a tongue-tingling taste. On its own, the cod kills: A crispish, tawny outside and buttery-soft inside. The 2-inch by 3-inch piece of fish is the summit of layers of braised red cabbage and a pear-and-lentil salad, allegedly enlivened by endive chutney. There’s also a sauce of preserved lemons in the mix. On paper, that sounds like the gastronomic equivalent of the big finish to a fireworks show on the Fourth, but here there’s something missing.
Something sweet? Something sour? Something. The combination of flavors is bland.
That cannot be said of the first course mussels, a Krakatoa: East of Java pile that basks in a buttery, Sargasso Sea of kale that’s studded with a linguica flotsam. Big enough to be an entree, the mussels conspire with the sausage and wine sauce to successfully strip all bitterness from the kale, allowing eager ingestion of several weeks’ worth of lush, green antioxidants.
A Russian roulette of blistered soshito peppers comprises an antipasti offering. There’s something delightfully devil-may-care knowing that, somewhere in the pile, you’re guaranteed to find several green peppers exploding with heat. Sick and twisted though it may be, there’s oodles of fun in sharing soshitos with an unsuspecting soul.
Beets, always a big hit, are an even a bigger one with some caramelized fennel thrown into the mix, as is the case in Maranello’s colorful salad. The dressing is citrusy enough, so ensuring that a candied pecan is included in each bite is a prudent investment against teetering toward the too tart. For the vegetarian, the root vegetable-centric cassoulet is sweetened with a butter wine sauce.
Suggestions for wine or beer accompaniments to plates and entrees abound. It’s difficult, on several levels, not to order Rogue Dead Guy Ale to wash down the soshitos or an Educated Guess cab with the short rib raviolis. From beginning to end and in between, Maranello is a pleasurable package of food and camaraderie that makes for a special dining experience—always at a pearl of great price.