On going “Uptown”

When one thinks of fine dining in the River City, Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento—otherwise known as “Uptown”—is not the first place that comes to mind. This is the home of Sammy’s and Li’l Joes, old-school diners where the meat is as tough as the prices are low. Yet, a mere bottle’s throw away from these boulevard stalwarts, near the corner of Arden and Del Paso, you can enjoy feta cheese, country mixed olives, white anchovies, bresaola, marinated artichokes and quail eggs at Enotria, the café and wine bar that appears to be flourishing here in the land that time forgot.

With its tan stucco façade broken up by large French windows divided by glass brick columns, Enotria fits in well with Del Paso Boulevard’s Art Deco buildings without seeming like an anachronism. The interior is exquisite, but we chose to dine outside, beneath Enotria’s wonderful brush arbor, its thick vines snaking up wooden poles and fanning out to form a thatched awning overhead, rope lights intertwined in the vines casting a soothing, tunnel-like glow in the early twilight.

The crowd was fairly upscale; the waiters were informed and attentive. Ours was maybe a little bit too informed. “That’s how you know you’ve poured it right, when it makes that little chocolate waterfall,” he said after turning one of those cans of Guinness Draught with the ping pong ball inside it upside down in my glass. Little chocolate waterfall? Welcome to Wonkaville.

For the price of an appetizer at Enotria, you could buy two people dinner at L’il Joes or Sammy’s. The comparison isn’t exactly fair, but it puts things into perspective. When you pay $11 for quail and chicken galantine, the dang thing better zing. And the deal with the quail we received was that it didn’t. Now, it looked fine, sliced thin lengthways, stuffed with chicken paté and served with a truffles and a mission fig sauce that was as dark and thick as molasses. But though the slices appeared boneless, each still had a tiny piece of breastbone attached, so that the unsuspecting diner could possibly gag on it. The quail was dry and overcooked, the stuffing tasteless, the sauce the dish’s only saving grace.

A field green salad we decided to split also seemed to have all the right ingredients: balsamic vinaigrette, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts. Even the salad forks were chilled. But the waiter’s delivery put a dampener on things. “It’s such a pain to split a salad,” he said, seeming to suggest we shouldn’t have split it. Perhaps that explains why the salad, while exceedingly fresh, was nearly devoid of dressing.

Shortly after the salad-splitting remark, we realized that although we had been seated a half-hour, we had yet to receive any bread—a shame, since Enotria is renowned for its bread and even sells it on the side. We informed the waiter, who informed the bread guy, who turned up with some bread 10 minutes later. The wait wasn’t so bad, since a good 20 minutes passed between the time when our salad plates were removed and our entrées arrived.

As the reader may have gathered by this point, Enotria’s star meter was on the wane. Fortunately, our choices for main courses—grilled Pacific salmon steak and veal T-bone chop—helped equal the score.

Our thick salmon steak, served on a bed of lentils surrounded by a sea of tangy red pepper coulis, was pink on the edges and translucent in the middle—perfect! Anyone for a forkful of hearty lentils and tender flakes of salmon topped with puréed red peppers and a squeeze of lemon? Count me in.

Much of what can be said about the veal T-bone cannot be printed in the pages of a magazine directed toward a general audience. Suffice to say that the oh-so-tender flesh of this sizeable chop peeled off the bone with the utmost of ease, and was so young and tasty it hardly required the rich truffled Roma tomato sauce it was served with.

So, a few minor and not-so-minor complaints, and some major kudos. Enotria has the atmosphere and the entrées down pat. With a little more attention to service and detail, its stars are sure to rise.