First string

Used to be you could count the great restaurants in Sacramento on one hand—one finger, if you go back in time far enough. Times have changed for the better, and nowadays it takes two hands to make the tally. We’re approaching the major leagues when it comes to fine eateries, and if we had to select a first string to do battle in the culinary play-offs, no doubt Waterboy would make the cut.

My wife, the Junebug, and I realized Waterboy had potential when we reviewed it when it first opened in Midtown several years ago. Our recent return visit provided an opportunity to see whether that potential had been realized, and to put it mildly, we were simply stunned at the quality of the food and the service.

There’s a certain voyeuristic quality to Waterboy’s exterior. Situated on the corner of 20th Street and Capitol Avenue, two of its walls feature enormous panels of glass that face either street. You get the feeling that you can look in; however, once inside, you never feel like you’re being watched. In fact, with its high ceilings and spacious table settings, Waterboy is the perfect spot for a romantic interlude, particularly if you’re trying to impress your date with fine food.

The Junebug and I began our interlude with an endive and watercress salad. “It’s a tiny little salad,” she said, and it was, but as the saying goes, good things come in small packages. Crunchy chunks of endive and tender watercress mingled well with sliced apple, glazed walnuts and deliciously pungent bleu cheese. “That was just right,” said the Junebug.

The last time we had sweetbreads at a local restaurant, they were overly breaded and salty, and we realized we were taking a chance ordering them here. Our risk was rewarded handsomely, with lightly sautéed meat that tasted rich and exotic, accented with capers and sun-dried tomatoes. We mopped up every last remnant of the dish’s Marsala/mushroom gravy. Like the salad, the portion of sweetbreads we received appeared smallish at first, but quality more than made up for any perceived lack in quantity.

The ’bug was completely impressed with the quality of the service as well, and that’s saying something for a girl who was practically raised in New York City’s finest restaurants. The staff was attentive without being overbearing and never once rushed us. Local restaurateurs take note.

Waterboy takes its culinary cues from Southern France and Northern Italy, a fact I took advantage of by ordering the Waterboy cassoulet, a rendition of the classic French dish that features duck confit, lamb and sausage with white beans slow-cooked in a tomato herb sauce. Rich and hearty, it was the perfect entrée for a foggy Sacramento night.

Juney is a fish girl, and she went with the fresh Alaskan halibut special. It was pan-roasted to a translucent tenderness, served atop an excellent mound of fennel mashed potatoes. She was speechless. That means it was good.

Heading into desert, we felt like spectators watching a major-league pitcher work the last inning of a no-hitter. There was still a chance he could blow it. Would the Waterboy pull it off?

One look at our chocolate meringue roulade cake, and the game was over. Sliding bits of chocolate cake through the chocolate espresso sauce drizzled on the plate and into our mouths and then washing it down with a sip of hot espresso was as near to perfection as you can get.

No doubt about it. This is one restaurant that won’t be riding the bench. Waterboy is truly major league.