Chefs tell

The people behind the plates talk about food, the restaurant business and the local dining scene

Fred Reyes, executive chef at the Zinfandel Grille

Fred Reyes, executive chef at the Zinfandel Grille

Photo By Jill Wagner

Walk down a Midtown street these days and you’re almost guaranteed to see neon lights, valet-parking signs or a menu board, indications of a burgeoning dining scene. Who better to give us the lowdown on this restaurant boom than the people who toil in its trenches?

To give you the inside dish on eating out in the capital city, we interviewed chefs from five of Sacramento’s most popular restaurants: Fred Reyes, executive chef at the Zinfandel Grille; Rick Mahan, executive chef/owner of The Waterboy; Lauren Barton, chef/owner of Michelangelo’s; Chris Lombardi, executive chef at Hangar 17; and Gene Moana, executive chef at Lucca.

What makes a successful restaurant?

Reyes: It has a lot to do with the crew. You can have a really great menu and a really good idea on how a dish should look, but the people who are working at the stations have to be able to execute it. You also have to ride out fads. People follow a diet for a while and then they go back to what they like.

Mahan: It’s no mystery—location, capitalization, experience, and having a love for it definitely helps. I think many restaurants that don’t make it are a product of people not realizing how much effort it takes and how hard it is. You need to have some natural draw to the profession.

Barton: Just to play the game you need certain things, like good food. It’s what you do on top of that—the ambience, servers, character of the restaurant and the authenticity—that gives the restaurant a distinctive character. A really good restaurant is a place where someone has a vision and stays true to it.

Lombardi: People want a comfortable environment where they can have fun; they don’t want to spend a lot but they want decent food.

Moana: Great location, good dynamics, ambience, good food and lots of seating.

How would you describe the Sacramento dining scene?

Reyes: It’s not a super innovative restaurant scene like in the bigger cities, although Sacramento is getting its feelers out there and trying different things. It just takes a while for that evolution to happen.

Mahan: When we first opened nine years ago, we were lonely here [on Capitol Street]. Now that’s changed and this is a hot area; the number of places that have opened in this neighborhood is amazing. Also, food is at the forefront of our lives now more than ever, thanks to celebrity chefs and television, and restaurants need to recognize that diners are becoming more educated and enlightened.

Barton: Sacramento has a very conservative flavor. Diners aren’t necessarily willing to venture outside a familiar dining culture. Restaurants that have tried to experiment too much have not done well.

Lombardi: Asian restaurants, especially Japanese restaurants, have been hot. The Asian/California/fusion scene has been big, too. Things are growing in Sacramento, and we’re starting to see some new stuff that is more authentic.

Moana: Sacramento is an untapped market for chefs. The culinary industry has reached its peak in other areas, but it’s growing here. Sacramento diners have basic tastes, but they are not opposed to new trends.

What are the most popular items on your menu?

Reyes: One thing I’ve been serving that’s caught on really well is a salad with a nice piece of fresh fish, walnut vinaigrette and fresh berries—it’s lighter fare, and it’s healthier.

Mahan: Something that has been on our menu since day one is our [polpetto of] sweetbreads [with bacon and onions with polenta and chanterelle mushroom sauce].

Lauren Barton, chef/owner of Michelangelo’s, and her daughter, Jacqueline Barton.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Barton: Spaghetti and meatball, which is a family recipe, and spinach ravioli in brown butter sage sauce with toasted walnuts. Our tiramisu has been rated best in the city, and that has nothing to do with the extra rum in it.

Lombardi: Our marinated Asian skirt steak, and a pork chop stuffed with bacon and Gouda cheese and covered in mushroom sauce. Also, people like our panko prawns (breaded, deep fried and served with onion strings and a red pepper aioli) and calamari appetizer.

Moana: Our zucchini chips, which look simple, but I demoed them for a month before we got it right. Also, our golden chicken risotto, our braised short ribs, and my most favorite meal: New York steak, center cut, with French fries and a mustard sauce. It’s a vision of simplicity.

What’s your vision for the restaurant?

Reyes: We want to reflect the diversity of California. With the abundance of good local produce, farms close by, and the different ethnic backgrounds of the people in this area, we can offer a lot of different foods and a large array of items.

Mahan: Chez Panisse [in Berkeley] has been my guiding spirit. I was always impressed by how dedicated they were to not buying into what everyone else in this country is buying into, in terms of where our food comes from. We are getting more involved with sustainable agriculture and developing amazing relationships with local organic farms.

Barton: In Italian culture, you assume the food is going to be good, so dining out is much more like a social event. We want people to enjoy the environment, take their time, and feel comfortable telling us what we could do better.

Lombardi: We encourage the social aspect of going out by providing an upscale bar menu, an awesome environment and a wide selection of drinks.

Moana: I think a chef’s job is all about education. The greatest thing about food is taking a familiar thing and making it a little different. We take a lot of classical items and give them a twist, inject our personality into the basic dishes.

Where do you eat when you dine out?

Reyes: I like helping out the smaller restaurants because I know what they go through day in and day out. Pancho’s over on 21st and Broadway has good Mexican food and it’s a pretty good value. They make a good margarita, and they don’t charge a lot for it.

Mahan: I like to go to restaurants operated by people who patronize The Waterboy. I’ve enjoyed good meals at Biba and Masque. I like Nopalitos on H Street in East Sac: They do what they do well; and it’s casual, comfortable and the food is good.

Barton: Enotria has a comfortable environment; Tapa the World is fun and the owner has a strong vision and he knows the statement he wants to make. (Lauren’s daughter, Jacqueline, a managing partner, also lauded Kamon Japanese Restaurant for great food and value, and Vallejo’s for authentic food and good portions.)

Lombardi: I like Kru, the new Japanese restaurant on J Street. They are creating a different experience besides rolled sushi. They use raw fish and put a lot of time into the presentation. Also, Moxie on H Street is good. You go there and the owners are your waiters. The menu has a few regular items, then they rattle off a bunch of specials. It’s a small place, so it’s easier to keep their menu rotations fresh.

Moana: I eat pretty simple when I’m not on the job, and my wife is a great baker. But I think Kurt Spataro is a great chef, as is Chris Jackson at a Shot of Class.

Featured restaurants

Zinfandel Grill
2384 Fair Oaks Boulevard
(916) 485-7100

The Waterboy
2000 Capitol Avenue
(916) 498-9891

1725 I Street
(916) 446-5012

Hangar 17
1630 S Street
(916) 447-1717

1615 J Street
(916) 669-5300