Fifty-five alive

Restaurant 55 Degrees

555 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 553-4100

I often draw a blank when someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation, which is doubly embarrassing because it usually follows immediately upon that person learning that I review restaurants. But recently when someone asked me for a good new place for lunch downtown, I had no need to hesitate: Restaurant 55° leaped to mind. Much hyped, this is a sleek new spot from the experienced husband-and-wife team of Ali Mackani and Lisa Watts with chef Luc Dendievel, who last collaborated on Baccaras in Folsom. Co-chef Christophe Gérard (formerly of Napa’s Angèle) also has joined the crew.

The quietly elegant, very pricey Baccaras was run in a very different spirit from 55°, which has a lively vibe even when it’s evidently full of legislators and lobbyists. Restaurant 55° is modern and compact, with a see-and-be-seen feel thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. At lunch, the effect is a little bit fishbowl-like; paradoxically, after dark it feels cozy and warm. The menu, too, is much more casual than that of its forerunner: There are steamed mussels prepared four ways (all served with excellent fries), steak frites, and a fun selection of sandwiches at lunch, as well as fancier options like seared scallops and a foie gras appetizer.

Nevertheless, some of the best elements from Baccaras are evident here, among them the excellent service. Mackani, who seems to be present at all times, is courtly and gracious but unobtrusive in inquiring about guests’ experience and keeping things running smoothly. Servers are friendly but not overly familiar, well-briefed on the menu and wine pairings, and professionally precise. Another similarity is the excellent training evident from the kitchen staff—their knife skills especially. You won’t see ragged rough-chopped chunks of carrot here: Every bit of diced vegetable is a tiny cube so perfect you could roll it in a miniature Monopoly game.

All the presentation, indeed, is beautiful. One doesn’t expect surprises from a mixed green salad, but here’s it’s an oval jewel box made from long slices of English cucumbers, frilly greens within, adorned with tiny tomatoes. It tastes good, too, freshness complemented with a nicely balanced vinaigrette. The same restraint and balance is evident in heartier appetizers like the oxtail roulade—really a piquant frisée salad topped with a small disc of beautifully browned, succulent braised oxtail. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s the very essence of meatiness, and perfect for a chilly night, yet restrained enough to leave plenty of room for an entree.

My husband also tried the chicken-and-mushroom croquettes, an unfashionable-sounding dish that proved to be delicious. The croquettes were chunky little batons of panko-crusted savoriness. I also tasted a friend’s cauliflower soup on another visit, and it was creamy yet light, full-flavored and spiked with mild curry oil.

The four types of mussels presented my husband with a dilemma: whether to get them marinière with white wine and garlic; Thai with green curry and coconut milk; Provençal with tomatoes; or in the signature house “55 degrees” style, with Belgian beer, bacon and goat cheese. The latter won out, in part because the menu offers a pairing of beer or wine with the dish for a surcharge of just $3. We figured that the server would then recommend the same Belgian beer used in the dish, and she did. This is the best deal in the house. The mussels are plump and tender with a wonderfully complex, brothy sauce.

I had the lamb sirloin: three tender slices of pink, mild lamb, seared with a fabulous deep-brown crust, presented over flageolet beans with piquillo peppers. I felt the astringency of the peppers, tasty though they were, competed slightly with the plate’s other flavors. Nevertheless, the lamb was a perfect match for my glass of Syrah, just as the server had predicted. The wine, however, was very warm—a bit above room temperature, a surprise given that the restaurant’s name comes from the proper cellaring temperature for wine.

On other visits, I tried a ham-and-cheese panino, crunchy and whimsically cut into long slices, and a pork chop with a brilliant accompaniment of darkly sweet prunes, smoky bacon and Brussels sprouts. The chop itself was a bit dry, unfortunately, and the restaurant didn’t have sharp knives to contend with the meat, leaving me sawing away with a butter knife. A friend had absolutely perfect seared scallops, which were also a highlight I remember from Baccaras.

Desserts are a touch more basic than the rest of the menu; the presence of two chefs leads me to think that there’s no pastry chef in the kitchen. I liked the tangy lemon-buttermilk panna cotta and a buttery, caramel-flavored pear tart, but the latter’s accompanying pear sorbet lacked well-rounded pear flavor. The molten chocolate cake had the opposite problem: I loved the pistachio ice cream alongside, but the cake itself was a bit too sweet, and the part that wasn’t molten verged ever so slightly on rubberiness.

These minor quibbles aside, Dendievel and Gérard are evidently running a tight ship in the kitchen, and the front of the house at Restaurant 55° is equally disciplined. The Capitol Mall isn’t known for its restaurants, but this new place ought to bring people out to eat. And now, when somebody asks me for a recommendation near the Capitol, I know exactly what to say.