Formoli’s Bistro: A formidable feast
Sacramento, CA 95816
Formoli’s Bistro is formidable. Four stars from the first visit. First and foremost, Formoli’s floats the boat of Mrs. Lucas, who isn’t eager to appear in this space and has previously been disguised as “Brandi with a heart over the ‘I’” and “She Who Must Not Be Named.”
What wins her praise here is a passel of appealing possibilities for vegetarians, both as meal openers and closers. Beginning at the beginning: The vegetable carpaccio is crisp and refreshing with slender, overlapped paving stones of cucumbers and orange and purple beets arrayed before a mound of mixed greens that are dappled with a thin bell pepper puree.
The long rectangular vegetable-tasting plate features fingerling potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, a frisée salad and—and more on this later—some creamy butternut squash puree. It’s garnished with pickled vegetables, including potent jalapeño spears.
A bit of back story: Formoli’s is the other half of the restaurant swap on J Street. that sent Vanilla Bean Bistro (formerly known as Gonul’s J Street Cafe) to Formoli’s old warren and brought Formoli’s into its current high-ceilinged, spare, dark cranberry space of black tables and chairs just six blocks away.
But back to the fare: There’s butternut squash in abundance to the degree that questions arise as to whether chef and co-owner, Aimal Formoli, has it on the brain. It accompanies a four-spice pork shoulder and, along with its fellow cucurbita, acorn, also punctuates the bed of couscous in a duck entree. It also offers an unexpectedly compelling counterpoint to the seared scallops and their garnish of crunchy radish slices, watercress and endive slivers.
Speaking of endive, be wary of the stuffed Medjool dates. Not because there’s any deficiency in the goat cheese, pancetta and succulent date combination, which is beautifully bitch-slapped by the bitterness of the endive canoe it rests in, but because the dates retain heat and, even after sitting for a few minutes, may still scald. Another flavorful combo is a curried carrot, orange, coconut-milk soup in which each taste is readily identified yet melds majestically with the others.
Also noteworthy among the meatless morsels is an eggplant portabella Napoleon, a tip of the hat to the layered dessert of the same name. Here, it’s a cylindrical sandwich with the mushroom in the middle bracketed by melted Asiago cheese and dollops of—not enough—pesto. The tower is placed asymmetrically in a plate laced with a geometric field of balsamic. Cutting into the stack, it bleeds olive oil. A bit off-putting, but it enhances the overall package. Have a care: Like the Medjools, the mushroom holds heat.
Flavor combinations are a big part of the Formoli playbook, and the blend of the tower’s components is the payoff just as it is in the salad of beets—wafer-thin enough to be used interchangeably in the carpaccio—with shaved fennel, frisée, a few orange segments and pistachios laced with a stentorian balsamic vinaigrette.
For the meat and poultry-minded, the steak and pomme frites dish is simple but boasts nifty flourishes, such as pickled vegetables and a bit of butter to slather on the flat iron. Upon request, habanero aioli—which graces Formoli’s famed whiskey burger—is brought in to jazz up the frites.
Less mayo, more habanero, please.
The duck, astride a generous saddle of squash-studded couscous, is neither shocking pink nor unpleasantly parched. In fact, it’s darn near perfectly cooked. At $18, it shares top-price billing on the menu with the steak and shoulder.
Service by Angelo the manager—and by Kristina and Guido—is gracious, engaging, attentive and unruffled. While tangerine, Tabasco or Talisker-flavored water would be preferable, the cucumber-imbued H2O is a cool freebie.
And it’s always a delight to use black napkins, which inevitably recall Frank Zappa’s searing instrumental opus.
Formoli’s is dark Mondays. Enjoy accordingly.