Heaven over water

Dinner for one: $20 - $40

Rio City Café is primarily known as perhaps the best place for riverside dining in Sacramento. Despite this, with the outside temperature hovering around three degrees the other night, we sat inside. As we sat down, the riverside windows revealed little but the black night sky, so we directed our attention to what is really quite a nice dining room: refined and spacious, yet somewhat comfortable and cozy. A pleasant fire blazed in the fireplace behind us, and off to the right we could watch the cooks battling the onslaught of dinner orders. As we browsed the extensive and enticing menu—and later noted that the food was generally excellent—it became clear that the river was not a necessary component to a first-rate dining experience here.

The menu was enough to put me in a state of pleasant anticipation: braised lamb shanks with mint demi-glacé, California bouillabaisse, duck breast with sun-dried cherry sauce, salmon with Champagne buerre blanc—which made the choice a difficult one. The appetizers were equally alluring. We started with an appetizer sampler ($12.50) comprised of an achiote chicken skewer, bruschetta, crab cakes and “Chinese nachos.”

I’ve grown rather skeptical of new creations like Chinese nachos, probably because I’ve become all too familiar with the cuisine of chefs who come up with an interesting idea and menu description, but fail to create good food to back it up. This was not the case at Rio City. The nachos were made from fried won ton skins, which were then covered with a diced mixture of raw Ahi tuna, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and a soy-lime vinaigrette. A slight sweetness insinuated itself within the otherwise strident acidity and balanced savory character of the dish, creating an unimpeachable blend of the three flavor profiles. But perhaps more striking was its texture: the crispy won ton chips were just slightly softened by the vinaigrette, and the firm but yielding raw Ahi created a rich textural contrast which added sensual complexity to the dish.

With this star on the plate, the bruschetta fell into the shadows, a relatively lifeless affair of tomatoes and olives on bread with shaved Grana; not bad at all, just weak by comparison.

The crab cakes stood out for being of the more-crab-than-mayonnaise variety (fortunately unlike others I’ve tried) and were energetically spiced, and the achiote chicken skewers were thoroughly enhanced by a delicious jalapeño glaze.

As we progressed to entrées, the food maintained the level of quality established early on. I had the sautéed sea bass with white bean ragoût and fire-roasted tomato sauce ($17.95). Though it wasn’t advertised as such, the fish had been lightly coated with blackening spice before being sautéed. Also not advertised was a saffron-infused sauce, which was laced over the top. The fish had been cooked perfectly—or at least how I personally like it, that is: medium. Like the nachos, it was a model of complementary flavors. Robust and deep of body, the roasted tomato sauce added important dimension to the subtle cast of the white beans, and the delicate fish flesh came to life with the light spice and the perfume of saffron.

Had I the space, I could go on about how the blackened pork tenderloin with apricot sauce ($16.50) was as good, if not better than the sea bass (though one could’ve broken a tooth on the wild rice!), and how the salmon with Champagne buerre blanc excelled as well.

I guess you’ll just have to go find out for yourself.