In your neighborhood

Tuli Bistro

2031 S St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 451-8854

Tulí Bistro was a long time coming—the corner of 21st and S streets sported a hopeful “coming soon” sign for months—but it opened late last year and seems to be drawing happy if small crowds. The size of the crowds is no indication of the restaurant’s appeal, only its physical size: It’s tiny. There are two tables and a number of counter seats inside, and then there’s an outdoor patio that will be very pleasant when the weather warms up. On the rainy, gusty night we went for dinner, the hatches were battened down with sheets of blue plastic, the heat lamps were blasting, and the staff was distributing fluffy blankets to all the patrons seated outside.

The menu is compact but appealing—and if you don’t see something you’re perfectly OK with, there’s a friendly “substitutions welcome” note. You’ll find salads (and a single soup daily), pizzas and the oddly named “small plates”—some of which are small (like tempura-fried ahi tuna) and some of which sound a little heftier (like “This Little Piggy,” Duroc pork tenderloin with baby bok choy and apple-jalapeño relish). The chef is obviously taken with chilies, as different varieties pop up on the menu frequently. The wine list is short and sweet, following the current trend toward setting up categories by descriptors; here, whites are “flirty, crisp and clean” or “complex, smooth and buttery,” but whatever the adjective, the wines are well priced, nearly all under $50, with lots of interesting choices. I ended up with a bright tempranillo from Argentina.

We started off with a beet salad with big chunks of yellow and red beets, shavings of fennel and a retiring vinaigrette; the earthy flavor of the beets dominated. I could scarcely find the menu’s promised ricotta salata, which was grated so finely that its salty, savory flavor was hard to detect. A cup of homey, thick potato-cheddar soup with crunchy shoestring potatoes and a subtle drizzle of truffle oil was just right for the cold, wet evening—warming and hearty with a smooth, thick texture.

We moved on to the small plates and, as the menu suggested, they were varied in size and style. The arancini—risotto balls filled with cheese and spicy andouille sausage, crusted with panko and deep fried—were crunchy on the outside, nicely gooey inside, with firm but fully cooked rice grains. Their name means “little oranges” in Italian, and these were indeed golden little spheres, perfectly snacky and (thanks to the spicy sausage) bolder in their flavors than traditional arancini.

Kobe beef stroganoff, made with lots of succulent mushrooms, had a lot going for it, but some problems as well. Good points included the mushrooms; creamy, comforting brandy sauce; tender housemade fettuccine, and a good idea: stroganoff, rarely seen on menus anymore, is ripe for revival. Less laudable were the ho-hum and sometimes starchy green peas and the chewy bits of meat. The whole point of Kobe-style beef is tenderness, right? Here, because in stroganoff beef is cooked to well-done, any velvety texture was gone. Honestly, because Tulí has a daily-changing menu, it made me suspect the dish was a way to use up an expensive, over-ordered ingredient.

Among the other small plates, we also tried the quail. It had a lot going on for one small bird: a hefty stuffing of jambalaya, habanero gastrique and a bed of winter greens. At times, the spiciness threatened to overwhelm the bird’s subtly gamy flavor, but all in all, it hung together. The faint minerally bitterness of the greens offset the heat, and the quail’s well-seasoned, peppery skin crackled with flavor.

For dessert, the choices are fairly classic: chocolate cake (layer cakes seem to be back in; has the gooey molten-chocolate cake trend finally expired?), crème brûlée and ice-cream sandwiches. Normally, I’d be all over the ice-cream sandwich, but it was too cold; the chocolate cake, though, was yummy.

On another occasion, a friend and I tried Tulí out for lunch. (They’ve also recently added weekday breakfasts, with a limited menu—breakfast burritos, English-muffin egg sandwiches—that they plan to expand in time.) The changing lunch menu is casual but upscale: burger sliders (everywhere lately), pizzas, big salads, crispy chicken sandwich and so on, plus nonalcoholic beverages like mango iced tea and fancy sodas.

The tuna salad, which came with super-thin, super-crisp shoestring fries, was tasty, and my friend really enjoyed it: a little spicy, mildly fishy and easy on the cheese with thin slices of Manchego and some nice crunchy sourdough, plus teeny-tiny heart-shaped arugula sprouts that added peppery freshness. If I were going to cavil, I might say the same thing as I did about the Kobe beef: The point of ahi is really a little lost in tuna salad, in that the nice, fresh ahi is fully cooked and finely chopped.

The bistro has a pizza oven, too. Crusts are thin and crisp at the edges, with some good blistering on the bottom. They have a few chichi topping combinations available, and I chose the shrimp scampi, in part because I wanted to give them a chance to win me over on putting shrimp on a pizza. And, you know, they did. The shrimp was tender, sweet and garlicky, and it went well with the additions of tangy goat cheese and the field-fresh, snappy arugula that woke up the whole dish.

Tulí has some quirks (the small space, for one) and some minor kinks to work out, but on the whole, it makes a great addition to its neighborhood. Right now, it’s just what Sacramento’s dining scene needs: more sturdy, high-quality neighborhood spots, of the sort you’d pop into on impulse on a Wednesday night. That’s Tulí.