Risky kitchen

On the pursuit for perfection—and maybe a Michelin star—at Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar

Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar’s executive chef Pajo Bruich started hanging out in restaurant kitchens when he was just 6 years old—his mother owned two Sacramento-area Rally’s Hamburgers.

Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar’s executive chef Pajo Bruich started hanging out in restaurant kitchens when he was just 6 years old—his mother owned two Sacramento-area Rally’s Hamburgers.

photo by Ryan Donahue

It's a fascinating thing to watch. Rebecka Woodsford is in the pastry crew’s sunny corner of Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar’s kitchen, carefully painting what looks like a mini ice-cube tray with a tiny artist’s brush. She’s making delicate pink and white swirls with colored cocoa butter in the tray’s little cups, holding each to the light coming through a wall behind her that’s built with thick bricks of textured glass.

It’s 9:05 a.m. on what will be a long day that includes a special wine dinner. The sun is making the kitchen completely cheerful. Later, it will make it completely hot.

Edward Martinez watches her. He’s Enotria’s pastry chef and a Sacramento culinary celebrity. Woodsford also worked for him at Hawks Restaurant in Granite Bay, and there’s an easy, big-brother-little-sister air between them.

“This is just one small step,” Woodsford says.

“Doesn’t mean we can mess it up,” Martinez says.

She gives him a look that says duh. But with respect.

They’re making mignardises—small, complimentary dessert bites that will be served with coffee. These will be a ganache of pink peppercorn, white chocolate and coconut inside dark-chocolate shells, with those pink-and-white swirls of cocoa butter on the chocolate.

Peppercorn? In a dessert?

Enotria’s pastry chef Edward Martinez is a perfectionist and restlessly creative.

photo by ryan donahue

“It’s an ingredient no one was using,” Woodsford says. “We try not to repeat an ingredient in a meal.”

Martinez likes trying new things, which is a baseline theme at Enotria these days. He regularly gathers his pastry crew to brainstorm.

“We just throw out ideas,” Woodsford says.

“Most of them I shoot down,” Martinez says.

“Yes, he does,” she says. Pause. “It makes us stronger.”

Strength matters at Enotria, the longtime mainstay of wine and fine dining on Del Paso Boulevard. In the last two years, it received a $1.5 million remodel that doubled capacity, took on a fresh, swashbuckling style and brought in executive chef Pajo Bruich—a man with exacting standards, a tireless work ethic, and a daring approach that’s not just unique in the region, but either a risk or the answer for a Sacramento restaurant that’s trying to stand out.

Martinez and Woodsford will work until midnight. Most of the kitchen crew works the same kind of nutso hours. Martinez is a national-class talent, and he’ll oversee the desserts and baking, help with the main dining-room service and be a key player in the wine dinner, featuring Palmaz Vineyards of Napa Valley. Woodsford, who’s wearing a white T-shirt under a white apron, will change clothes late afternoon and take up hostess duties. After the guests leave, she’ll go back to an apron and roll out bread for the next day. Rolling it the night before builds more flavor, Martinez says. They make three breads—pan au lait, pretzel and bacon challah, and, yes, they see the irony of bacon flavor in a bread with Jewish heritage. It took Martinez three weeks in the test kitchen to land on these, trying different textures, densities, shapes, flavors and more.

This morning, Woodsford is dealing with her mignardises plus some mild harassment from Bruich about the cocoa-butter swirls.

“Looks like my 4-year-old did that,” he says.

Pastry chef Edward Martinez works with Rebecka Woodsford to finesse the restaurant’s dessert-offering selection.

photo by ryan donahue

Woodsford smiles and gets to the ganache, building it in a square, 4-quart plastic tub with an immersion blender. She adds coconut extract with a dropper, tastes with a spoon, adds more drops. Martinez tastes.

“Needs more coconut,” he says. “Don’t be shy.”

When they’re satisfied—mostly, Woodsford isn’t sure but thinks the flavors will intensify and doesn’t want to overdo it—she grinds peppercorns and puts the powder into the ganache, tasting as she goes. The milk for the chocolate shells was seeped in peppercorns the day before.

Next, she tempers the chocolate so it will hold form. It’s in a bowl, brought to 120 degrees, lowered to 80, then raised to 89 degrees. Woodsford pours the chocolate into the painted trays, pounds them hard on the counter so there are no uncovered spots or bubbles, meticulously scrapes off extra chocolate and waits for it to cool. Her white shirt and apron are an abstract painting of chocolate streaks. It’s nearly 11:30 a.m. by now. She moves to other chores while the chocolate cools and solidifies. A few minutes later, the ganache is poured in. Then it cools more, and is covered with the remaining chocolate. When everything is down to room temperature, the mignardises go into the wine room at 58 degrees. The fridge would make the chocolate too hard. Bruich comes by during the last chocolate phase.

“All this work,” he says, “for something we’re giving out free.”

Not science, just food

Enotria is the newest shiny object on the Sacramento restaurant scene and has gotten as much attention recently as any area restaurant in years. Some of that’s because it’s considered new—despite opening in that spot in 1995—but much comes from its transformed style, its newfound vitality and its ambition.

Sacramento can be tricky for an ambitious restaurant. On one hand, it’s a city of foodies. On the other, it’s also a city of neighborhood eateries and continuity. Some diners love new things, some want the same reliable food at their favorite spots. Even a place like Ella Dining Room & Bar, the downtown restaurant with a rep for adventurous eating, balances that with reliable dishes.

Enotria has jumped completely into the adventurous-eating side of the pool, betting it’ll draw enough foodies and curious diners to its ever-changing tasting menus, which mean trusting the chef to take you on a ride. (Enotria offers a full range of &#;agrave; la carte dishes, but its focus is on tasting menus.)

The result has been a parade of good reviews, high praise and new diners who might never have considered a trip up Del Paso Boulevard. But attention is a two-edged sword. Media focus on a still-evolving restaurant also means detailed scrutiny—from the press, from the restaurant community, from customers—of every move or personnel change. No one at Enotria is complaining. It sought that attention, announcing big hires and bringing on a national public-relations firm. But it’s still learning to live under a spotlight.

Executive chef Pajo Bruich joined Enotria last September. Since then, his tasting menus have placed an emphasis on attention to detail and and making each ingredient “shine.”

photo by ryan donahue

And in some ways, that spotlight distorts what’s happening at Enotria. Lots of talk is about Bruich’s style and what’s called “modern cuisine” or, unappetizingly, “molecular gastronomy.” Those are vague labels, but generally involve transforming textures and products into matter that seems to come from a chemistry lab.

The food at Enotria does not qualify. It’s original and inventive, and very often surprising and dramatic. But it’s not just a parade of foams, dots and gels. Bruich uses some techniques from the science of modern cuisine, but the food comes out looking like, well, food.

“Some chefs try for simplicity,” Bruich says. “They’re trying to highlight the ingredient. I have the exact same approach. I want to make the ingredient shine. I look at the flavors and try to find the best way to deliver them.

“I might manipulate a texture or build flavors differently, but it’s not a difference of intent,” he continues. “We want our diners just to see a delicious, well-cooked piece of lamb. It’s not about what I did, it’s about what they’re eating.”

By way of example: A new dish to the menu is a display of peas, asparagus, baby beets, carrots, tiny potatoes, grilled artichoke hearts and more on a silky asparagus puree. The colors—greens, oranges, reds—look like they were painted. Each vegetable is cooked separately, so each is sweet, crisp and precisely tender. Together it tastes fresh and alive, like spring. A trip through the chef’s tasting menu is one course after another like that—a pork cheek you can cut with a spoon, a sea urchin dish that makes you hear the ocean, pasta so soft it’s creamy, floatingly light squid chips, subtle ginger sponge cake, startlingly bright pickled radishes, soft carrots as dessert.

Not every Sacramento chef has embraced the new Enotria, maybe because they’re not thrilled with the tasting-menu approach, or they don’t love the style, or they just haven’t been there yet. But the consensus is a communal finger crossing for the success of Bruich and company.

“It’s good for Sacramento that he’s pushing the envelope,” said Aimal Formoli, owner of Formoli’s in East Sacramento and a chef frequently listed among Sacramento’s best. “We have so many niches to fill, but it’s risky. In San Francisco, you get a zillion people walking past your place. Sacramento is smaller. Being different could narrow your appeal if you’re not really good. Pajo’s really good.”

It’s just before noon on that wine dinner day, and Bruich is working on a lamb dish to pair with a Palmaz 2007 estate cabernet sauvignon. It’s a showcase for how he works. The lamb was cooked sous vide—sealed in a bag, immersed in water and cooked long and slow at a controlled temperature.

“That gets it tender and keeps the juices in,” Bruich says, as he’s taking a flat roasting pan of charred leeks out of a 500-degree oven. “I have a perfect medium-rare lamb. If I put it on a grill to get a char, which would go great with the wine, I’d overcook the lamb.”

Enotria has jumped into the adventurous-eating side of the fine-dining pool, betting it’ll draw enough foodies and curious diners to its ever-changing tasting menus.

Photo by Ryan Donahue

Instead, he mimics the grilled flavors. He rolls the lamb loin in a dust of cocoa powder, finely ground coffee, black and white pepper, salt, and the charred leeks he carefully rubbed down to a powder. Even unfinished, the lamb looks and smells like it came off a smoking grill. Nine hours later, it will be a clean, elegant dish that includes juice from the lamb, maple-glazed cipollini onions, bacon-wrapped potato gratin and a smoked cipollini espuma, which is a foamlike sauce that’s the consistency of Cool Whip.

At 12:15 p.m., long before the lamb will see a plating, Bruich meets with his staff to check on progress.“How are the beets?” he asks Patrick Smith, a former Sonoma chef.

“Coming out now,” Smith says. “They’re looking like the right size.”

The meal will include three kinds of baby beets. A shipment a day earlier had beautiful but randomly sized beets. Smith had to reorder. He wants them identical. Those details matter when each plate is a bit of art. Bruich asks Martinez what he’s planning for dessert.

“Campari and grapefruit sorbet, pistachio cake, Asian pears,” Martinez says.

“Sounds good,” Bruich says.

Bruich trusts Martinez—once a member of the dangerous Fresno gang called the Bulldogs—like no one else. The only clue to Martinez’s background is that he’s got more tattoos than anyone in the kitchen. He’s tall and moves gracefully, jokes often, smiles frequently and talks like a grad student. Martinez and Bruich are both perfectionists, both restlessly creative, both smart and talented. They’re the foundations of this new, often wondrous Enotria.

“What else you doing?” Bruich asks him.

“I’ll figure something out,” Martinez says.

Precision, perfection and the pursuit of a Michelin star

The food at Enotria isn’t just a parade of foams, dots and gels. Chef Bruich uses some techniques from the science of modern cuisine, but the food comes out looking like, well, food.

photo by ryan donahue

Bruich was hired last September, and everyone is still finding their rhythms in the kitchen and dinning room; the restaurant still has the inevitable churn of staff that comes with newness.

That includes the arrival and departure three months later of high-profile sommelier and general manager Anani Lawson, who left citing “family emergencies.”

He said he couldn’t spend enough time in Sacramento, but it’s pretty clear the arrangement didn’t work out.

Longtime Enotria owner David Hardie says he’s “all in” on Bruich and that he expects stops and starts with staffing. He knows restaurants. He knows Bruich needs people he’s comfortable with, and who are willing to work the often crazy hours this ambitious approach requires.

“Pajo is a delight to work with,” Hardie said. “His professionalism demands that people who work with him, including myself, conduct themselves with the same professionalism. I can see it in everything from the valet service to the ambience to the food. They’re working hard in there, but that’s just not for everyone.”

Bruich is still building his crew, but says he’s thrilled with the core, including new general manager Jenny Yun, who started this month and came most recently from the acclaimed Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley.

“We truly have to get people to buy into what we’re trying to achieve,” Bruich says. “They have to volunteer mentally and feel a part of it, or it’ll just be hard work.”

And then there’s the case of the elusive Michelin star. When he’s asked about it, Bruich says, yup, he wants Enotria to be good enough to earn one. That also got local foodies talking. A Michelin star is one of the highest honors a restaurant can achieve. Only 127 American restaurants got stars for 2013. Only two in California got the maximum of three (The French Laundry in Yountville and Yun’s former employer, Meadowood).

But here’s the thing: Michelin only goes to New York, Chicago and San Francisco, which includes wine country. Just three U.S. spots. (Michelin also rates—selectively—restaurants in Europe and Asia.)

Martinez puts the finishing, precise touches on a strawberry dessert confection.

photo by ryan donahue

It even stopped rating food centers like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and it doesn’t come to Sacramento.

So does it even matter? When Bruich took over Enotria, he hailed that distant Michelin star as both a target and a standard of excellence for the staff. It was about motivation, getting everyone asking: Are we doing Michelin-caliber work?

“I’m selling something to our staff,” Bruich says. “Would I like to get a Michelin star? Of course. But I want to set a tone. I want everyone to try to be worthy of a star. That makes everyone better.”

Now, before 3:30 p.m., Jennifer Millsap, a chef who maintains a state of both hustle and calm, is in the front kitchen. (Enotria has two kitchens, one at each end of the building. That less-than-convenient setup came from the remodel and a decision not to build into the charming courtyard.) She’s carefully labeling containers with olive-green tape. Bruich pushes everyone to do everything neatly and on point, even labeling.

“I get it,” Millsap says. “It’s a mindset. Do everything right. Our knife cuts have to be precise. We do a good amount of really, really detailed work. We’re prepping all day, right up to service. You don’t want to lose focus on anything.”

One reality of good restaurants is that lots of work gets done before the last rush to fire and plate a dish. What the public sees is the flash at the end. In some ways, that’s true of Enotria as a whole. What Sacramento sees now is the unique, intriguing, almost nervy chase for excellence. It’s easy to miss the backstory on Enotria and the years of chasing excellence.

“David Hardie took a gamble on that location, and he’s stuck with it,” Mike Dunne, the former Sacramento Bee restaurant critic who remembers Enotria opening, says. “He’s gotten good chefs and had a great wine program all these years, and he sunk a fortune into it. With the exception of the Firehouse, I can’t think of another restaurant of that era that put as much focus on wine as on food.”

Both the pedigree and the location add to the Enotria story. At the corner of Del Paso Boulevard and Arden Way, it’s maybe only 10 minutes from downtown. But it seems distant from the city’s restaurant core. Both Hardie and Bruich say that’s why they want Enotria to become a unique destination. Certainly, people can just drop in, but they want diners to get excited about coming.

Hardie said that’s a big reason he hired Bruich. He wants Enotria to stand out. Bruich grew up in the Sacramento area in a food and restaurant family. His grandfather started Dean Industries, which makes food-industry equipment. Later, he opened and ran Frosty Huts around California. Bruich’s mother owned two Rally’s Hamburgers in Sacramento, and when she and Bruich’s father divorced, she often brought Pajo to work with her when he was as young as 6. As a young teen, he could repair kitchen equipment and nearly run the place. Bruich fell for cooking and learned much of his technique on his own. He began making a name for himself in 2005 doing high-end private dinners. His only previous experience as an executive chef was at Lounge on 20 in Midtown, from 2011 to 2012.

Enotria general manager Jenny Yun joined the restaurant this month, relocating to Sacramento from the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley.

photo by ryan donahue

As one friend says, “Alice Waters never worked in a restaurant before she opened Chez Panisse [the legendary Berkeley restaurant]. That worked out OK.”

It’s now 5:20 p.m., and Yun is in the side dining room, giving servers detailed instructions for the wine dinner—the order they’ll enter and leave, who sets food at which seat, even their pace.

“Walk out calmly,” she says, “then haul butt down the hall to the kitchen.”

Next, Yun watches as servers Jeynie Jacob and Diana Emerson line up the 28 settings of plates, silverware and every glass on the long table into a dead-straight line. Jacob is sighting from the head of the table. Emerson is moving glasses. “Third glass, quarter-inch toward you. Perfect. Next, toward the wall a smidge. Another smidge. Beautiful,” Jacob says in a language of smidges and dashes they’ve developed over months. They do this item by item, down to the butter knife. “Next glass, toward you an inch. Bingo. Next glass is good. Next, a quarter-dash toward you.” Bruich looks in. He gets a big smile.

“Friggin’ military,” he says. “Love it.”

The final hustle

It’s now 7:10 p.m. The last wine dinner guests just walked in for the 6:30 dinner. The main dining room opened at 5 p.m. The cooking for that room is coming from the back kitchen. The front kitchen is where Bruich, Millsap and Brianna Lively are stationed preparing the Palmaz dinner. They’re in major hustle mode as servers pass appetizers in the courtyard and begin to guide guests to the precisely set table. Enotria’s wine bar is busy, and the front kitchen handles that traffic, too. While Bruich starts plating the first dish, a blend of sturgeon, apples, horseradish pearls, squid chips and more, Lively and Millsap rush through wine bar orders. Millsap motors around counter and burners.

“I’ll be there in a minute, chef,” she says. She heats cheese in a small saucepan and pulls squares of macaroni from the oven. She pours the cheese sauce into a bowl, props the mac squares on end in the cheese, then wipes the sides of the bowl for presentation.

“Yeah, baby,” she says to a server waiting for the order. “All right, chef, I’m back to help.”

By 7:25 p.m., the front kitchen has filled with chefs from the back kitchen to help finish the plating. The 28 plates line the counter as servers queue up.

photo by ryan donahue

“Flower?” Bruich asks. “It’s a beautiful dish, chef,” says Tyler Bond, Bruich’s sous chef. “Doesn’t need it.”

Eight people—six servers, Yun and Bruich—quickstep down the hall toward the wine dinner. The servers and Yun sweep in smoothly. Each has two plates. They place them in front of half the guests, haul back to the kitchen, and moments later sweep through with the rest. Bruich stands at one end of the room, looking uncomfortable—for the first time this day—waiting to speak. The diners slowly go quiet. When Bruich starts, there’s no discomfort, no sign of hurry, no hint he and his crew have been wailing away in the kitchen for 10-and-a-half hours.

“Welcome to Enotria,” he says. “We have a great evening planned for you.” Bruich says the apple flavors in the dish should pair well with the 2011 riesling. Matthew Lewis takes over the descriptions, adding his boundless enthusiasm. “Riesling is one of the most versatile wines in the world,” he says, as he pours around the table.

Lewis was Enotria’s sommelier but left when Lawson came in. Lewis, energetic, unassuming and encouraging, is back for this special occasion. While Lewis talks, Bruich hustles back to the kitchen and starts on the hamachi course that will pair with the Palmaz 2010 chardonnay. The pattern repeats for two solid, intense hours, through the short ribs and the lamb with the charlike rub and into the dessert. Bruich and Millsap start on the course, chefs pile in to help plate. Servers gather, then parade to the dining room.

By 9:30 p.m., Martinez has taken over the front kitchen and is running the dessert course. Bruich is already analyzing the meal.

“I wasn’t as happy with the short rib as the lamb,” he says. “It tasted good, but if I did it tomorrow, I’d do it differently. I like a cleaner plate. I need to tighten up the technique.”

This is the Pajo Bruich who has become the spirit of Enotria—driven, curious, thoughtful, self-critical, perfectionist. There is something in him that simply needs to keep improving.

“I feel like I’m cheating if we’re not constantly changing,” he says. “We’re so critically analytical, it’s hard to just go out to eat. You can’t turn that part off. And we’re hardest on ourselves.”

But Bruich is also a populist, and that might be the toughest thing for outsiders to see. He wants people to simply like food. He wants them to have a good time eating it. He doesn’t cook for praise—although he’s thrilled to get it—he cooks to please, to feel he’s doing something that matters.

He’s a son of Sacramento who wants to cook here. He sees this as a great city for food and wants the world to see that, too. He hopes what he’s doing at Enotria will help.

Enotria, clearly, is something that won’t be for everyone, but there’s no denying it’s reaching for something, pushing, pushing, pushing to get better. It sees dinner as a performance, a chance to dazzle and a chance to please. It’s obsessive and earnest and confident and slightly crazy, and its hope is that people will come for an experience and surrender completely.

It’s 11:10 p.m. Finally, the restaurant is empty of guests. Florencia Palmaz has led two rounds of cheering for Bruich, one while he was still in the kitchen.

Finally, it’s postmortem time. Martinez and Woodsford taste the mignardises again.“Needs more coconut,” Martinez says.

“Yeah, it does,” Woodsford says. Bruich comes over to taste, too. First he has to give Woodsford more grief for the pink-and-white cocoa butter swirls.

“Tastes good, though,” Bruich said.

“Needs more coconut,” Woodsford says.

“Yeah, it does,” he says. She’s nodding but already moving toward the pastry kitchen and reaching for an apron.

Time to roll out the bread.