Chust not good enough

Cheffery’s, An American Bistro

4235 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95864

(916) 488-2433

My first difficulty in reviewing Cheffery’s was figuring out the name. Was the “Ch” soft, like “chef”? Or “Ch” hard, almost like Jeffery? (It turns out, the latter name is that of an owner, thus the origin for the restaurant’s moniker—though it also looks like an inversion of “Refer-a-Chef,” the name of the catering business from which Cheffery’s was born. Anyway, our server, a pleasant but fast-talking young man, pronounced it as “chef.”

My second difficulty was that I really wanted a glass of wine, but the liquor license hadn’t yet arrived—a problem that is almost certain to have been remedied by the time this sees print, apparently. Despite a sudden urge to run across the street to Whole Foods and pick up a bottle of wine to smuggle in, we settled for perusing the menu and scoping out the décor, which, like the menu, is a bit all over the map—a ceramic rooster and odd, fern-bar-ish rainbow-light panels overhead contrast with modern art and sleek glass light fixtures. The menu ranges from old-fashioned, such as chicken cordon bleu (how ’50s) and blackened chicken (how ’80s), to comfort food, like spaghetti and meatballs and pot roast, to casual sandwiches like eggplant marinara and a bistro burger. It’s hard to know what aura they’re going for, or, with a somewhat tough location in a bland shopping center at Arden and Eastern, what crowd they’re hoping to attract.

I started with a hearty little bowl of French onion soup. I liked the deep brown, almost meaty (if slightly salty) taste of the broth and the tender onions. Unlike many French onion soup renditions in which the cheese is on top and broiled to brownness, here there was a spoonful of melty cheese shreds in the soup itself, as well as a smaller sprinkling on top of two toasted slices of baguette. The taste was good, but the presentation was less appealing than it could have been.

Next came the “Buffalo calamari.” This is available as both an appetizer and as a salad for a dollar more; the menu descriptions are identical, so I’m not sure what the difference is. We saved a buck and got the appetizer, and if the salad is bigger, I don’t want to encounter it. The dish was an unfortunate merging of the Buffalo chicken wing idea with the omnipresent fried calamari: calamari rings tossed with spicy (well, allegedly spicy) sauce, anointed with squiggles of blue-cheese dressing on top of a salad that featured a lot of yellow peppers and some greens on the edge of wilting.

Now, I guess the Buffalo wing has its place, and my husband likes them and loves fried calamari—but this fusion of concepts was unwelcome. And it was poorly executed, to boot, with tough and overcooked calamari (it seemed to have little appreciable batter on it, so the tender cephalopod had come directly into contact with oil), no flavor to the blue cheese dressing, and no heat to the Buffalo hot sauce.

For fried goodness, we turned instead to the giant side of what the menu called “Cecil’s sweet-potato fries.” I don’t know who Cecil is, but I like how he thinks. The deep-orange batons were nicely crisped, tender inside, and perfectly salted. A scattering of aromatic thyme leaves cut the sweetness of the root vegetable.

All the food came out very fast—indeed, despite the fact that we ordered appetizers and entrees, we were in and out in less than an hour. In part, this may be attributable to the lack of a liquor license, but it also seemed to bespeak the catering-biz roots of the restaurant. Catering is based on make-ahead, portable, quickly assembled food. Of course, a lot of restaurant food is made ahead, too—quite a lot. But chefs walk the line to add distinctive finishing touches to order, and that sensibility was not so evident here. Giveaways included the dry, browned edges of the cut side of my meatloaf entree, for instance.

The meatloaf was problematic in other ways, notably its super-strong dose of salt—perhaps unsurprising since it included both feta and Italian sausage. The drizzle of sweet, ketchup-y sauce didn’t offset the salt enough. I was confounded by the side of “twice-baked potatoes,” which were actually cheesy lumps of potatoes served baked in a thick little cup of fried potato strands (a bird’s nest, which showed up several times on the menu). The fried potatoes were, I suppose, only sort of meant to be eaten, and they had a thick, chewy crunchiness that was discouraging. The meatloaf sat atop some plain vegetables (zucchini and peppers), which were pleasant enough.

My husband’s spare ribs, which the menu called smoky, but tasted like, well, plain-baked pork (not a bad thing, in itself), were similarly disappointing. Our server delivered them along with a slightly labored badinage about what makes spare ribs spare; they came with another potato nest, this time filled with plastic-y, processed-tasting mac ’n’ cheese. The barbecue sauce was tangy, sweet and unremarkable, and the vegetables were the same as mine.

We turned down dessert, since it’s not made in-house—though I do like Freeport Bakery desserts, which is what Cheffery’s is serving. I left feeling disappointed with the dinner service. The lunch menu, discouragingly, features basic sandwiches (tuna melt, French dip) and a few obvious dinner-leftovers (meatloaf sandwich). It strikes me as a tough sell when Whole Foods, with its wealth of fast fare—some of it even prepared to order—is right across the street.