No regrets

Plan B Cafe

7600 Greenhaven Drive, No. 23
Sacramento, CA 95831

When choosing a name for a business, beware of the Google effect. The first thing that pops up if you search for Sacramento’s Plan B Café is, inauspiciously enough, the morning-after pill. But lest you think you might have regrets the next day if you dine at Plan B, never fear. It’s better than you would ever suspect a shopping-center cafe in the Pocket Area of being—a boon, no doubt, if you live in the neighborhood, and worth a drive if you don’t.

The name, of course, is not a reference to contraceptives. Rather, it’s the name the chef and owner came up with after their initial plans (working together at Sofia) fell through. It’s perhaps over-modest; this could easily have been a chef’s “Plan A.” Special-occasion downtown restaurants are nice and all, but solid, stylish neighborhood places are a rarer commodity in Sacramento and, given our sprawl, ought to be extremely welcome.

The shopping-center restaurant presents its design challenges, to be sure, but this one is the most successful transformation of such a space that I’ve seen. It’s all spare white walls and dark-wood accents—sleek and modern with simple but attractive touches like single red roses in a couple of wall-mounted vases. Every square inch of the small space is in use, but it doesn’t feel cramped, and there’s a nice bar to accommodate waiting parties or casual diners. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so waits do happen; the night we went, it was busy the whole time we were there.

No wonder: The menu is instantly attractive, with simple and crowd-pleasing bistro dishes—steamed mussels presented in different ways, all with frites; vegetable tartlets or various skewered meats as starters; several nice salads and soups; entrees, like salmon with Provencal butter, roast chicken, rack of lamb with mint oil (a special), and so on. It’s plain the kitchen knows its limitations (of space, mostly, I’d guess) and has planned a focused and moderate menu accordingly. I do wish they’d vary up the accompaniments to the different dishes, as most come with mashed potatoes and vegetables, but perhaps it’s wise not to overreach, especially at first. There’s a compact wine list that runs to things French (so, for that matter, does the waitstaff, who spoke French among themselves), with well-priced glasses, and a few good beers, as well.

My husband started with one of the tartlets: leek and fennel with white anchovies. (The other option was tomato and mushrooms with bacon.) He was skeptical about the anchovies, but the server and I convinced him. He later admitted they were one of the best parts of the dish: white anchovies are tangy and bright, rather than dusky and oily, and these complemented the sweetness of the crunch-retaining fennel and the earthy leeks. The crust was unusual, very thin and a bit tough, like hard-baked thin bread dough, but it tasted good.

I loved my butter lettuce salad, which was artfully stacked to look like an airy head of lettuce, and lightly dressed with a mixture that emphasized grainy mustard. A few dried cherries, a scattering of deeply toasted and finely chopped walnuts, and a very light hand with some crumbled bleu cheese rounded out its flavors without overwhelming the delicately flavored lettuce.

My husband ordered the mussels with coconut-milk sauce (one of four options also including tomato sauce and à la Nantaise). The bivalves were tender and subtle, while their steaming liquid married Thai-influenced flavors: sweet coconut milk, spicy green chilies, aromatic lime leaves. The thin frites that came with it were addictive, dusted with a savory mixture of dried herbs I couldn’t quite place.

My short ribs, one of the specials, were tender—rich, dark and beefy—a pile of meat slow-cooked to render out most of the cut’s copious fat. The braising liquid (a red wine base, we learned) was a touch salty, but that was nicely balanced out by bland, buttery mashed potatoes and simple vegetables. The wine the server recommended, the Shooting Star Cabernet—quietly juicy with dark fruit flavors, and very smooth—was a perfect match for the beef.

The dessert choices were more modest and less stylish than either the rest of the menu or the restaurant’s vibe: cheesecake, cappuccino mousse cake, chocolate mousse, crème caramel, and pear tartlet. My instinct might have been for the pear tartlet, but it was less appealing to my husband, who was more in the dessert market than I, and we tried the cappuccino mousse cake. It was chocolaty (I was a bit surprised it wasn’t called mocha) and dense, yet airy, with a crust rather than a cake base: pleasing enough as far as it went, but it kind of tasted a day old and wasn’t terribly interesting.

Such little glitches, though, are easy to overlook in the course of dinner at Plan B Café—a thoroughly pleasant experience. If one sign of a city’s thriving restaurant culture is the quality of its neighborhood spots, then Plan B is a very good sign indeed.