French disconnection

Balcony Restaurant

801 1/2 Sutter St.
Folsom, CA 95630

(916) 985-2605

There are few better types of restaurant than the classic French bistro, with its straightforwardly delicious cooking, free-flowing (and often inexpensive) wine, leisured dining pace and Parisian flair. The Sacramento area has long been short on restaurants in the traditional bistro style, but I was hopeful when I heard about Balcony Bistro, which has occupied an upstairs space in Folsom’s historic district for nearly a year. It’s the right time of year for dining in the open air on the eponymous balcony, so we headed to Folsom to see if this spot could put an end to our bistro nostalgie.

Sadly, things didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. For starters, the balcony was full, and on a warm night, the uncomfortable chairs inside seemed even more so. Our server was nice enough but seemed rushed, even though we were one of only a couple of full tables inside. She asked us for our wine order as soon as we sat down—indeed, as I was reaching for the unopened wine list—and then twice more before we were actually ready to order. (Then, as it happened, the white wine I ordered was not yet cold, so she asked if I would wait while it chilled.)

The interior had a certain charm, replete as it was with local art, but it didn’t really telegraph “bistro,” except for a sign bearing the word in all-caps over the door to the kitchen. The music was a Frank Sinatra medley that lasted almost to the end of the meal and that included—I do not kid—Ol’ Blue Eyes’ swing version of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”—not very French. The menu, too, made it clear that this was a bistro in the nouveau rather than the classic vein. It was equally divided between traditionally French dishes—steak with shallots and bacon, bouillabaisse—and those in a more fusion-y vein: soufflé crab cake with chili sauce, for instance, or pear and walnut pasta.

We started off with the crab cake, a half-dome that was not as light and airy as the word “soufflé” might imply. Moreover, the crab didn’t have quite the bright, sweet freshness that one would hope for. The sweetness, in fact, was all in the creamy sauce, which had only the faintest hint of the promised chili zing. I had been interested in a dish of gravlax, but when I asked, our server said it wasn’t cured in house, so we got a classic dish of steamed clams with white wine and garlic instead.

The clams themselves were excellent, perfectly cooked, tender and with a lovely taste of the sea. The steaming liquid, however, was cloudy—it looked like a bit of cream had been added but had broken. A big hit of lemony flavor tasted not just of cleanly tangy juice but ever so slightly of bitter pith.

Each entrée comes with a choice of soup or salad. I went for salad, which was fresh and pleasant, with a heavy sprinkling of walnuts, while my husband had the soup, a tomato bisque. Its hearty, deep flavor would have been perhaps more appropriate for a winter evening, but it was unobjectionable.

My husband and I split down the middle for our entrees: I wanted one of the bistro-classic choices and got the duck confit with apricot sauce, while he had the menu’s wildest choice, sea bass with soba-noodle sushi. The sea-bass portion, with its teriyaki-like soy glaze and a crisscross of wasabi sauce on top, was delicious: a well-conceived and nicely cooked piece of fish.

The soba-noodle sushi, though—well, let’s just say that there may be a reason that sushi is made with sticky rice and not with noodles, as the slices fell apart on contact. They had flaws in execution as well as conception: First, the noodles were doused in a chokingly pungent amount of wasabi; second, they were cooked to inert mushiness; and third, I don’t think they were actually soba (that is, buckwheat) noodles. Upon close examination, they were pale and thin, like ramen or other wheat noodles, rather than grainy, gray-brown and heartily flavored, as soba generally are.

My duck confit also had problems in the execution. Its skin was nice and crispy, but the meat inside was extremely dry, like desperately overcooked dark meat on a holiday turkey. It was also the first time I’ve ever had to salt duck confit. Since the process of confit-making generally involves salting the duck before preserving it in its own fat, confit is typically well-seasoned, but this was bland. The apricot sauce, too, was just generically sweet, without the distinctive tang of the fruit. The mashed potatoes, while pleasantly garlicky, had a stale taste that bespoke either making ahead or (and I hesitate to float this theory) the use of prepared potatoes.

The kitchen redeemed itself somewhat with dessert, though there were only three choices. We went for the “chocolate ecstasy,” a thick wedge of flourless chocolate something. I can’t really call it cake, because if there were any ingredients in there besides excellent dark chocolate (five kinds, according to the manager), butter or cream, and egg yolks, I would be surprised. It was essentially a wedge of ganache on a plate, and it was delicious. If only all of the cooking at Balcony Bistro had its simplicity, its boldness of flavor and its integrity, I would have left happy in my quest for a great bistro.