Davis, CA 95616
You’ve got to admire the sly design sensibility and sheer chutzpah of restaurateurs who take an old fire station and turn it into a shrine to fire, from the controlled blaze of a stylish pit out front to the transparent columns of racing vertical flames that buttress the bar area. That’s the aesthetic at the splashy, flashy new Bistro 33 in Davis, a sprawling and bustling complex that already looks like a runaway hit with locals.
Brothers Matt and Fred Haines, who operate 33rd Street Bistro and Riverside Clubhouse in Sacramento, have combined elements from both of those very successful restaurants in their new venture. Bistro 33’s looks are reminiscent of the latter, its menu of the former, but it adds plenty of touches of its own. The first and most obvious of these is its enormous, graceful patio, which occupies a huge corner in downtown Davis. (The site was also formerly Davis’ City Hall.) The outdoor space offers both cocktail tables and full-service tables for dining. The large trees overhead add a graceful element, though they also look like they’re going to mean a lot of leaf-blowing work for the staff in the weeks to come.
Outside the large, arched double doors stands the aforementioned low circular fire pit, with graceful flames whisking over pretty rocks. On the night of our visit, crowds gathered around it, and around the bar, and around the host station. Bistro 33 doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. The restaurant hands out pagers to the throngs; you’ll be summoned to claim your table with vibration and flashing blue lights.
The question is what you’ll get once you’re finally seated. If you’ve ever been to 33rd Street Bistro, the menu at Bistro 33 won’t hold too many surprises. Much of it is copied verbatim from the East Sac eatery, but there is a new vegetarian section.
Accordingly, I decided to try a dish of crispy polenta with wild mushroom duxelles (finely chopped, sautéed mixed mushrooms), while my brother went to the opposite extreme and ordered a meaty lamb shank, which came with a risotto with eggplant and peppers. As it was 9 o’clock, and we were both starving by the time we sat down, we also ordered up more appetizers than we probably needed. It was one of those times when everything on the appetizer menu looks wonderful, from herb-cheese flatbread to Dungeness crab cakes to French onion soup. We settled on shrimp “cigars” with plum sauce and a crab-and-artichoke dip with Parmesan crostini, plus a small spinach salad for me.
In the end, the question of appetizers was moot, because everything arrived at the table at the same time. I suspect this service glitch was one of those bugs that the place will work out of its system after it’s been open a little longer, but frankly we didn’t much care, though it did mean that some of the food inevitably got a little cold.
The shrimp cigars were long egg rolls, as fat as a Hollywood mogul’s stogie, split lengthwise and stuffed full of flavorful veggies and sweet shrimp. They had a great flavor, but the wrapper wasn’t as crisp as it could have been. A similar texture problem plagued the Parmesan crostini that went with the shrimp dip. They had a snappy cheese flavor, but the bread itself needed a toasty snap; instead, the interior had a chewy dryness. The dip, hot and creamy and gooey, was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser but not overly distinctive.
My spinach salad, with fresh chunks of goat cheese and toasted walnuts, had a sweet-tart citrus dressing with a nice zingy flavor of grapefruit. I prefer a slightly lighter hand with dressing, but the flavors melded nicely.
The lamb shank was presented off the bone, with tender, almost slippery chunks of long-cooked meat topping a pool of savory risotto. It was a well-balanced, lovely dish, just right for a cool evening. I wanted to like my polenta dish just as much, but, sadly, it was flawed. The duxelles were so finely minced as to form a sort of paste; the polenta triangles seemed to have been crisp once but had lapsed into near-sogginess. Both were bland and needed a good spike of salt. A huge mound of sliced green onions over the top helped the dish visually but added a jarring flavor.
A long list of desserts was delivered by the server rather than on the menu. My brother had a classic and very good crème brûlée; I was intrigued by the warm apple-blueberry cobbler. It had a tender, just-right biscuit topping and a nice, not-too-sweet fruit base. At first I was surprised by the kitchen’s decision not to peel the apples, but I liked it: It added a bit of texture, and the blueberries gave the whole thing a hauntingly deep flavor.
The Haines brothers certainly have found a winning formula, building on the success of their earlier restaurants. (They plan to further expand the concept with a Midtown version of Bistro 33 as well.) I wish they had been as inventive in developing a new menu as in the restaurant’s design; if they had, and if the kitchen were to tighten up on the details of some dishes, there would be no putting out the fire.