Lucky number 28

One of the benefits of living in a booming metropolis such as our own is that there always seems to be a new restaurant to visit. Lately, more often than not, these new restaurants have tended to be fairly good. I visited two such establishments in the past month and both turned out to be four-star experiences. So it seemed like a perfect time to revisit my all-time favorite Sacramento restaurant, Twenty Eight, to see how the old guard was holding up.

Twenty Eight, formerly known as Capitol Grill, is one of the twin jewels in Randy Paragary’s restaurant empire (the other being the Esquire Grille). It sits with understated elegance across from Paragary’s eponymous restaurant on the corner of N and 28th streets. There’s no outward reason to suspect that the finest dining experience available in Sacramento awaits inside this simple structure, but it does. At least, that’s what I’ve told everybody for the past three years since I last reviewed the restaurant.

Inside, there was no sign that anything had changed. Twenty Eight’s bold statement begins with its interior: dark, intimate and luxurious, with high-backed chairs richly upholstered in brown and gold material that perfectly complement the antique brick and hardwood dining area. Our waiter immediately set to making us feel comfortable, to complete this elegant picture. We ordered, and promptly received, a cute little half-bottle of cabernet sauvignon and fresh-baked whole-wheat rolls that were tough-and-chewy good.

First up was lobster pot stickers with curry sauce and pea sprout salad. Served in a wide, deep dish, the appetizer was the epitome of nouvelle cuisine: a triad of smallish pot stickers topped with sprouts and carrot shavings set in a circle of yellow curry that just barely covered the dish’s bottom. Dave Thomas from Wendy’s may hate this kind of thing, but I love it, and was heartily enjoying the succulent lobster meat inside when disaster struck—a small, triangular piece of lobster shell inside one of the pot stickers caused me to nearly break a tooth.

“That’s it, an automatic star off,” said my wife, the Junebug. When it comes to food criticism, the Junebug can be a harsh mistress. Come to think of it, I’m no saint myself, and, frankly, I was sick of all the four-star reviews I’d been handing out lately.

So I started getting picky. A Belgian endive and frisée salad with pears, pecans, Stilton cheese and vinaigrette dressing was “OK,” a little bitter (it’s endive, stupid, it’s supposed to be bitter), but no great shakes. It was looking not so good for Twenty Eight. That tiny piece of shell had nearly pushed the restaurant past the point of redemption. Could it reclaim its status as best restaurant in Sacramento? How?

I’ll tell you how.

By delivering the best entrées we’ve ever sampled in the River City.

I had chosen beef tenderloin with roasted shallots, mashed potatoes and French green beans. The inch-and-a-half-thick filet I received was charbroiled a perfect medium rare and served in its own juices. Each bite dissolved in the mouth with little or no chewing. The mashed potatoes were as fluffy and light as whipped cream. And the green beans? Tiny, sweet and tender, they seemed to have been raised personally by the Little Green Sprout. Heaven!

Pan-seared scallops were every bit the steak’s match. Topped with lobster beurre blanc and served with tomato-leek risotto, the silver dollar-sized scallops were plump and translucent and so tender you could have sucked them through a straw. What scallops! Good God Almighty!

Any doubts we may have had left were extinguished by a cool, triple-decker lemon-raspberry concoction that featured thin, crispy pastry as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Hallelujah!

Thinking back to my review of Twenty Eight three years ago, I recall that I was overcome with religious exaltation then as well. It’s no coincidence. Restaurants that can evoke this kind of reverence are rare indeed. That’s why I say Twenty Eight is still the best damned restaurant in Sacramento.