On the waterfront

Pilothouse Restaurant

1000 Front St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

On a trip to Vancouver, my husband and I were forced to acknowledge that the city of Sacramento, for all its livability, is short on scenery, particularly of the spectacular variety. What views we do have center on quiet river scenes—and even those are slightly hard to come by. Dining with a view, for instance, has traditionally been, well, less than stellar. But wait! Recently, Pilothouse—the restaurant of the Delta King, which not only has a river view, but also is, in fact, right in the water—revamped its menu to focus on local, seasonal fare. Could it be? A restaurant that takes advantage not only of local views, but also local ingredients?

Sort of. That new menu—stylishly printed in trendy all-lowercase with things like properly pluralized mini-bruschette and several steaks called “natural country beef” that follows “healthy principles” (what that means, I’m not quite sure, but the flat-iron with blue cheese sounded yummy)—has its points, but there’s some faulty execution in the kitchen on occasion. And the atmosphere? Well, the atmosphere is still very much Old Town. (We were seated next to some almost-literally-braying tourists airing 40-some years of marital discord, which is, of course, just bad luck and not the restaurant’s fault.) The dining room feels a little tired, with its old wood fixtures and dated carpet; it’s hard to find in the maze of gangplanks leading on board ship. And there are weird touches, like a case of wine in the lobby that resembles nothing so much as a vending machine.

Speaking of which, the wine list is intriguing, with picks that go beyond the usual chardonnay and cab suspects (e.g., Gewürztraminer and Riesling by the glass), but I was disappointed in, for instance, my glass of Tasmanian pinot noir, which tasted very oxidized, like the bottle had been open a long time.

The river is pretty, of course, but you look right out at that awful pyramid thing in West Sac and the Tower Bridge construction project. However, the night we were there, festive fireworks erupted over the river. Service was gracious and trying hard to please, if slightly naive—somewhat like the menu, in fact. When a table near us asked where they got their bread, our uptalking server replied, “We get it from a distributor called, um, Sysco? And it’s partially baked? And we bake it here so it’s hot.” In fact, ours wasn’t quite hot all the way through, but it was tasty enough; I’m just not sure the chef would want the server spilling the Sysco beans quite so readily, given that the menu wants to emphasize freshness and seasonality and all that good stuff.

We started out with a trio of the bruschette; you can choose three from among toppings like spicy shrimp, tomato with herbs and olives, and so forth. We had very tasty duck confit with slightly flavorless mango dice; melty, fresh mozzarella with tangy, colorful roasted pepper strips; and a less successful Portobello mushroom with an excess of aioli. The bread in each case was slightly under-toasted (or possibly done too far in advance), so rather than being crisp, it was occasionally chewy.

My husband was completely ravenous and ordered, to start, a very substantial salad: the spicy beef, which came with a little too much of a strong soy and lime Asian dressing, over greens and cucumbers, draped with very rare and very tender flat-iron steak. It would have made a nice lunch. He also had the menu’s advertised “hand-cut fries.” They may have been hand-cut, but were rather indifferently fried, and didn’t taste particularly special—a disappointment. I preferred my mixed green salad, with a tangy, simple vinaigrette, shreds of crunchy Asian pear, sweet toasted walnuts, and Point Reyes blue cheese.

For entrees, my hefty pork chop, made more elegant by having the bone frenched, came on a plate with a few vegetables (an undercooked Brussels sprout and some slightly overcooked green beans, plus a baby carrot), the advertised spaetzle, and a pool of a savory brown, grainy mustard sauce. The latter was delicious, with a nice meaty flavor that complemented the pork, but the pork itself was dry. The promised stuffing of onion marmalade was hard to find; there was a bit in a small pocket in the thick chop, but it didn’t carry enough punch to add moisture or much flavor to the meat. The spaetzle was fantastic, though, crisp-edged and buttery, picking up extra flavor from the sauce and also from bits of caramelized garlic scattered throughout.

My husband’s saffron seafood risotto was a mixed bag, as well. The rice grains themselves were well cooked, neither overly firm nor mushy, but the whole mixture was stiff and dry, and the kitchen had used a slightly too heavy hand with the saffron, resulting in a medicinal flavor. The mix of seafood, however, was generous—plenty of tender scallops, succulent shrimp, chunks of fish, and bivalves—and nicely cooked.

Desserts are largely simple (e.g., flourless chocolate cake), but house-made. We tried the profiteroles (cream puffs) with vanilla-bean ice cream. The pastry was soggy, rather than crisp, and they needed a more assertive, higher-quality chocolate sauce; the one they used was weak and tasted a lot like Hershey’s. This is in many ways the problem with presenting simple dishes: They have to be done right, or they’ll show all the flaws. Based just on the new menu, I had high hopes for Pilothouse, thinking it might (at last) be doing things right on the river. It’s an improvement on most of the waterfront dining I’ve tried in Sacramento thus far—but its reality doesn’t quite match its promise. Kind of like our scenic views.