Realm of possibilities

Magpie Café

1601 16th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 452-7594

Magpie is magnificent.

The classy Sacramento caterer has a new base, on R Street between 14th and 15th streets. Spartan but bright, the small cafe—and market—is a nifty showcase for the talents of Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr, the creative fire behind Magpie. Order at the display case, pay at the register, take a table number or stool it up at the counter.

Magpie’s fare, at least at the cafe, isn’t terrifically complicated. It’s flavorful, fresh and—particularly with a side of bean salad—plenty filling. There are recurring themes. The paper-thin slices of pickled red onion that enliven the Fra’ Mani dry-cured nostrano sandwich appear in lesser numbers in the bean salad. So do the roasted red peppers that grace the cotto salami sandwich, which comprises the second half of the aptly named Fra’ Mani Sampler ($9.75).

There is no butter slathering, aioli spreading or mayonnaise manhandling at Magpie. The combined flavors of the ingredients are left unfettered, free to speak quite eloquently for themselves. A place of honor at the top of the photocopied daily menu—which shifts about a bit but has many similarities between lunch and dinner offerings—is reserved for the following manifesto: “We use local dairies, farms and ranches to find cheese, poultry and meats raised without hormones or antibiotics. We also use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List of sustainable fisheries.” Implicit, the takeout containers are recyclable and biodegradable.

Like the neighboring Burgers and Brew, Magpie pays attention to detail. Its mixed green salad accompanying the salami sandwiches, for instance, contains bits of fennel that create periodic bursts of licorice flavor, a zippy counterpoint to the sweetish vinaigrette. There’s plenty of panache to be found as well. An heirloom-tomato slice and pitted olive are crucified on top of the $7.50 turkey sage cheddar sandwich, which also has a few sage leaves hiding out between the bread and cheese to punctuate the point. A small cup of puréed and curried carrot accompanies. Were it not for its uncanny resemblance to uni, my sushi kryptonite, more would be consumed.

A cautionary note on the steal-at-$1.50 bean salad, comprised mainly of the black and black-eyed varieties: If the bowl has been sitting in the display case for a while, the vinaigrette has settled, leaving the salad ramparts almost as dry as the San Luis Reservoir. A quick stir solves the problem in a trice and makes for a far more entrancing beananza.

Coupled with a small salad or, for bigger appetites, the $7.50 salad sampler, the beans are a meal unto themselves. Also a meal on its own, the $9.25 lemon chicken salad is presented with a toasted inch-across rampant baguette that’s begging to be crumbled and scattered among the red-leaf lettuce. The Petaluma chicken is juicy, tender and nicely flavored. Some lemon involved, go figure. And, a rarity in the world of chicken salads, there’s still some chicken left as consumption reaches down to the bowl’s bottom.

Magpie’s catering contains a whole other realm of possibilities. Among some of the “elegant” hors d’oeuvres offered: leek, red onion and Shaft’s blue-cheese pie; local shredded duck tarts with pomegranate sweet-and-sour; and Dungeness crab cakes with mandarin-orange marmalade and Thai basil. Even the “simple” appetizers shine: Spanish chorizo, coppa, Fra’ Mani and prosciutto with antipasto vegetables and pieces of focaccia bread, hit No. 1; kabocha squash “guacamole” with pita crisps, hit No. 2.

Mrs. Lucas’ holiday reception in December was a Magpie production, and she and her co-workers moved instantaneously from fans to fanatics.

At a recent dinner, the cookie Janel brings for dessert and the buttery Latcham chardonnay wows Mrs. Lucas. The salmon on the $10.50 niçoise, a frequent lunch offering as well, is a bit dry, but the cheese plate, with its accompanying pear and figs, is a grand slam.

What’s happening at Magpie, whether it comes to you or you go to them, is delightfully creative and somewhere north of authoritative.