It’s a wonderful meal
Sacramento, CA 95814
Mulvaney’s Building and Loan was a long time in opening, but it’s worth the wait. This is the kind of restaurant that Midtown—and Sacramento’s other neighborhoods—ought to have more of. It’s stylish yet down-to-earth, with good cooking, approachable yet thoughtful combinations of flavors, and the personality of chef-owner Patrick Mulvaney evident throughout; he visited every table to ask how things were during our dinner. It’s of a piece with its neighborhood but also good enough to draw from all over the area.
The dining room is warmly inviting and comfortable yet sophisticated. On our visit, it was drenched in late spring evening light, adding to its considerable appeal. It’s a high-ceilinged space, with walls of old brick and tall windows, and the elegance of the setting is matched by the general vibe. The restaurant has its goofy little touches, too, primary among them the name: Mulvaney’s Building and Loan, taken from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, has a certain quirky charm but seems likely to lead to Yellow Pages confusion. Another is a toy basketball hoop, perched high above the middle of the room.
Votive candles in egg-shaped glasses are nestled in a bed of French lentils, a perfect example of the restaurant’s marriage of the earthy, the whimsical and the stylish. A bookcase of cookbooks and food books faces one portion of the dining room. The mid-room two-tops are turned diagonally, so there is an easier view for both diners of the room’s major feature: the vast and entertaining open prep table adjoining the kitchen.
With few and minor exceptions, the menu is firmly in the local-seasonal-fresh camp. (So is the chef, obviously: I spotted him at the farmers’ market the morning after our dinner.) Area farms are prominently mentioned, so you know where almost everything on the menu is coming from; one exception comes in the ramps accompanying a dish of grilled lamb—a kind of wild leek or onion that grows wild in the Northeast. They’re everywhere on New York menus this time of year but rarely seen in California. They may not be local, but they’re certainly seasonal and no doubt fresh as well.
In keeping with this philosophy, the menu changes often and features only about 15 dishes in all—though that is plenty, given their range. From house-smoked salmon to porcini ravioli to grilled poussin with morel and fava ragu to dry-aged rib-eye steak, there are plenty of options here. The wine list, similarly, is relatively brief but well-selected, with choices that go well beyond chardonnay and cabernet; nearly everything is available by the glass, which I always appreciate, and most selections are modestly priced.
After an amuse bouche from the kitchen—a lovely little miniature plate of carpaccio—we began with a dish of delicately grilled asparagus, smoky and blistered with just-crispy tips, glistening with a light coating of oil. Slices of farmstead cheese, softened but not melted by the heat, complemented its delicate flavor and tender texture. Slices of salty, rosy prosciutto—a bit thick, rather than in satin-thin sheets; I couldn’t decide if this was intentional and desirably rustic or a minor flaw—lay below the heaping mound of asparagus. It, and a cut-open soft-boiled egg with a gooey, intensely yellow yolk, added both visual appeal and complexity of flavor. A bite of the asparagus dipped in the yolk, with a shard each of the prosciutto and the cheese, made for a perfect convergence of flavor, despite the essential simplicity of the dish.
At the same time, we shared a duck rillette—house-made, the server assured me—with a caramelized onion-cherry compote. I might have liked more of the compote, but the crisp toasts were lovely with the creamy duck. The spread differed in texture and composition from more traditional rillettes, which are typically a pounded spread of meat with its own fat. This looser interpretation was heavy on the dairy but still yummy.
I followed it with an entrée of oven-roasted branzino, a whole bone-in fish (the server, wisely, warned of the bones when I ordered it) with slices of tangy Meyer lemon stuffed in slits in its skin. It was surrounded by tender clams and baby artichokes—the latter could have been trimmed just a bit more to remove some slightly tough outer leaves—in a sauce redolent of smoked Spanish paprika. The latter, not mentioned on the menu, made the dish a less successful match than I would have thought with the grassy sauvignon blanc our server recommended; I wish I had tried it with a dry rosé or a fuller-bodied white. The white fish was perfectly cooked and delicious; I kept thinking I wasn’t going to finish it and then did.
My husband, too, polished off his entree of pork three ways: braised, fatty belly; smoked baby back ribs; and grilled shoulder, all with French lentils and some bitter greens. This is a home run of a dish for any lover of pork, and it was suitably succulent and tasty.
We were pretty full by this point. We probably should have just left well enough alone, but we ordered dessert anyway. My husband went for house-made chocolate ice cream with cacao nibs; it was pale and oddly textured, almost crumbly, and not very sweet—kind of like a ballpark chocolate malted, but with a hit of extra flavor from the crunchy nibs. I had an espresso crème brûlée that was creamy but shy on espresso flavor. Desserts are the major weak point at Mulvaney’s; there are only three on offer, plus ice cream, a cheese plate and chocolates by Ginger Elizabeth. Though the desserts are not bad, they’re not as inventive or as well-executed as the rest of the menu. A more ambitious dessert menu would further elevate this already very successful restaurant.