More is less
Sacramento, CA 95815
There are a number of places where you can get a drink with dinner, but for refined sipping and nibbling, head to a wine bar. Sacramento has a new crop of them, but the granddaddy, situated in the neighborhood that always seems to be just on the verge of revitalizing, is Enotria. Long a reliable presence on the Sacramento dining scene, Enotria recently acquired a new chef and a revamped menu. Standbys like paella remain, and there is still a large selection of flights and a truly vast, treasure-filled wine list, but other changes are not necessarily for the better.
First, about those flights and the wines-by-the-glass program: The 10 flights, many with determinedly cute names like Pinot Envy, are enticing and well-priced. My Riesling flight, with a dry Leeuwin (a premier western Australia vintner), a medium-bodied Alsatian Trimbach and a rich German Schloss Schönborn, was highly enjoyable and under $10. The service left something to be desired: Our server, in setting down the flights, just said, “They’re left to right,” but never identified, much less commented on, the individual wines—remiss at a place that hangs its reputation on wine. It’s not like he needed to rush; the place was downright somnolent on a Friday night. The dining room is still attractive, however, especially the wine-lined wood walls, though some of the décor looks a little dated.
The menu seems to have suffered from the opposite: an excess of updating. No dish was left parsimoniously garnished; menu descriptions ran to two or three packed lines. As an example, our tuna tartare—presented in a squat little cylinder—was atop sticky purple rice (my favorite part of the dish) with avocado, a honey-mustard sauce, green onions and some highly distracting lavender mixed in and a sunny-side-up quail egg on top. The menu also promised a potato gaufrette, but I couldn’t detect its presence. No need; the tuna was already lost in the sweet, goopy shuffle.
We also shared a much more pleasing, fairly classic Caesar, with the happy addition of tangy, not too strong cured white anchovy fillets rather than the usual canned fishies. The tart, creamy dressing coated the leaves well and the triangles of crisp focaccia croutons added a contrasting note, as did shavings of cheese.
Our third appetizer, short-rib ravioli, came with something called a “parmesan broth.” (It seemed like cream sauce to me, but it tasted good, so I’m not complaining.) Likewise, in the filling, I couldn’t detect the promised caramelized onions, but the rich, beefy shredded meat was hearty and mouthwatering. The only minor fly in the ointment was some doughy, too-thick pasta wrapping the big, round ravioli. The dish was good enough that the three of us at the table cut up the ravioli with mathematical precision to get fair shares.
Entrees were even more overdone—in some cases, literally. My friend’s bacon-wrapped scallops were overcooked and tough, though the sweet flesh balanced the strong bacon. It came with an at first baffling “flannel potato cake”—evidently a takeoff on the venerable dish red-flannel hash—it was beet-stained potatoes, shredded and fried in a hash-brown-like cake that wasn’t as crisp as it should have been. Rock shrimp and little dabs of pea purée also, oddly, adorned the plate.
My other friend’s entree ran in a different direction, with smoked, then grilled, pork tenderloin (cooked pinkish, yet dry) and a creamy, almost stickily rich polenta with mascarpone and an overwhelming dose of acrid white pepper. Poached pears, sautéed spinach and a pomegranate balsamic reduction added sweetness and a note of excess, but no real balance.
The daily fish special, too, was a little overwhelmed by its components—barley ragout with a Mediterranean combo of artichokes, tomato sauce, olives and tiny red onions; steamed clams and mussels; cheese on the fish; and a sprig of mache. As the simplest of the dishes sampled, it was also the most successful. The New Zealand sea bass was well-cooked, firm without dryness and mildly oceanic. The barley’s nubbly texture stood up to the olives and tomatoes, though I was disappointed to find that the artichokes (sparse anyway) were plainly frozen or canned. The tiny, tender clams, though, were a welcome touch.
After such a profusion of ingredients, the desserts were a crash course in simplicity. Chocolate lava cake, blueberry cheesecake, crème brûlée: None of them sounded interesting enough to tempt. Craving lightness, we shared a trio of sorbets, on this night a bitter blood orange, sweet strawberry and an oddly pulpy, seedy blueberry. (We were to pick three from the four on offer, and rejected kiwi; “Good call,” our waiter somewhat indiscreetly replied.)
I left feeling a little buffeted by the wild swings in flavor and mood of the dishes and wishing that almost everything had about half as much going on. The gild-the-lily approach produced food—complex, overwrought, tending to sweetness—that doesn’t go very well with wine. At a wine-focused restaurant, that’s a problem.