Sacramento, CA 95834
Is a restaurant boom starting in Natomas? Suddenly, a few independent places are popping up in what has been a land of nothing but chain restaurants. The first of these to open, Malabar, was long anticipated (read: delayed), but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. It’s a great big place, loud and busy (in all senses), but the food is not really worth the drive. The restaurant’s Web site says they have “created an extraordinary menu that offers choices from all walks of American life.” I would probably say, instead, that they’re trying to do too many different things, and doing none of them particularly well. Potato, po-tah-to.
Getting to the restaurant is the first problem. You can see it right there on Del Paso Road, but you have to pass it by a ways, turn back and thread your way through fast-food or motel parking lots to reach the restaurant, which is an oversized box whose architectural appeal matches that of the blandest new subdivisions in its neighborhood. The size of the room swallows up people but somehow magnifies noise: On our visit, there were quite a few empty tables, but the loud hum was akin to what you might hear sitting on nearby I-5. The only view from the big windows is of traffic speeding by on I-5, at least at night, and the televisions were plentiful.
Booths are big and comfortable, though with just two people I felt like a little pea rattling forlornly in a giant pod. Our server was peppy and chummy—perhaps more so than the kitchen might have liked, as she indiscreetly told me that my order was to be avoided. I had looked to the part of the menu labeled “Caliente, Picante, y Sabroso,” where you can pick three items for a combination plate, and one of them was a chile relleno. “Um, do you like cheese?” she asked. “Like, really, a lot?”
As it happens, I do like cheese, but I got the hint and asked if there was a problem with the dish. She said the chile relleno was overwhelmingly cheesy and disliked by most of her customers, that the kitchen was working on it, and steered me toward a different choice. When we asked her for recommendations, though, for the most part she fixated on telling us what was popular rather than what was good. The menu is confounding, varying from burgers, multicultural pizzas (a baffling tostada pizza, for instance) and sandwiches to a couple of pasta and stir-fry dishes, Asian-influenced appetizers and some Mexican dishes. It claims to be “American regional cooking,” but I don’t know what region any of it was supposed to represent. Perhaps “regional” was a misprint for “random”?
On our server’s recommendation, we started off with a dish of Chinese chicken in lettuce cups. At any rate, we started off by ordering it. Only the lettuce arrived during the appetizer portion of the meal. The chicken came when we were halfway through our entrees. I noticed similar timing problems at nearby tables. Once the chicken arrived, it was uninspiring. The lettuce cups were overly large (very big whole leaves of iceberg, which were hard to manipulate). The chicken mixture was well-flavored, with a touch of residual heat, though perhaps a little heavy on the shiitakes. However, the chicken itself was dry and dull where it should have been tender and velvety.
For a starter, we ended up sharing the house salad, which was like the restaurant itself: an unadventurous idea loaded up with too many extras and made far too big. Drowning in sweet balsamic dressing and topped with a giant slice of red onion, it also had candied pecans, dried cranberries and a sprinkling of blue cheese—a perfectly reasonable combination but overwhelming in scale. The excess dressing wilted the leaves into unappetizing submission.
My combo plate, without the cheesy relleno, was serviceable and certainly enormous, though the chicken taco again was marred by flavorless, dry chunks of chicken, as well as an off flavor in the oily fried taco shell. The enchilada was a little better, though its sauce was very bland and it had enough cheese to make me wonder how much more the chile relleno could have. The pork tamale was on the heavy side and again bland, though I liked the zingy green salsa that covered it. The plate came with cilantro-lime rice that had a nice tang, as well as dull black beans.
My mother ordered gumbo, which included everything but the kitchen sink: shrimp, salmon, bits of ahi tuna, chicken, linguica, okra. Since salmon and ahi both feature elsewhere on the menu, I can’t help but suspect the kitchen throws these non-traditional fish in its gumbo to make good use of its scraps. Certainly ahi is not well-served by being in a stew; it’s lovely rare, but fully cooked it turns dry and chalky. The sauce of the gumbo had some nice heat, but was otherwise very ordinary.
We ended our meal with a crème brulée, from the uncharacteristically short dessert menu, which offers only safe choices like an ice-cream sundae and a brownie plate. The top of the crème brulée was crackling and perfectly browned, but the custard underneath was so smooth and sweet that my mom said it reminded her of Jello pudding. It did have a mass-produced taste, but its main flaw was its dull predictability.
Malabar doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and its concept and execution both are flawed. As our server said: “Do you like cheese? Like, really, a lot?” You might want to head to Malabar.