Sacramento, CA 95816
The sharp sting of jalapeños rides on oil that pools in the thick roux, flavored with scallops, sausage and a strong allium flavor from sauteed onions. The Celestin’s Gumbo earns its $21 price-tag with enough meaty ingredients to be parsed out over two meals: flaky rock cod, chicken and wild shrimp marinated by the stew, and Polska Kielbasa sausage that carries a satisfying blood-pepper taste, all supplemented by rice.
Gumbo also graces the menu at such nearby favorites as South and Sandra Dee’s, as well as a kick-ass bucket of okra-laced stew at Tory’s Place, but I found Celestin’s rendition to be the most full-bodied and complex.
The recipe was passed down through Phoebe and Patrick Celestin’s family, whose Alabamian and Haitian culinary heritage is present throughout their menu. The husband-and-wife co-owners reopened Celestin’s on March 13—their original Midtown joint opened at 25th and J streets in 1983, moved to 18th and K streets, then closed seven years ago.
The new dining room is much smaller—only about 30 seats—with a cozy, Caribbean-influenced interior. Glittery artworks glitz up the wooden walls, while carmine red chairs and teal booths accent the elbow-to-elbow tables. Larger parties might have to wait during busy hours, but there’s often a stool or two available at the bar, even during lunch.
The menu brings back the old classics—the gumbo, the shrimp creole, the fried plantains—while adding a few more ambitious dishes, such as a small plate of Chiquetaille ($11), a Haitian meal of salted cod in a spicy vinaigrette. It’s a razor-focused menu with just a smattering of sides and salads and only four entrees outside of the seven varieties of gumbo. The Celestins know what they do best.
The vegetarian gumbo ($13) is a recent addition, and a rare find in most Southern restaurants. Though the broth lacks the umami of the meat version (duh), it’s thick as mud with a darkly peppery spice and wholesome seasoning from the many, many vegetables: jalapeños, zucchini, carrots, peas, cremini mushrooms and butternut squash that soaks up the garlicky stew.
Another Haitian dish resurfacing from the former menu is Griot ($14), which centerpieces crisp pork, marinated until dark brown, with a Caribbean jerk flavor that’s spicy and sour at once. I ordered it in part because this dish comes with fried plantains that you dip in bright ti-malice sauce (a vinaigrette of fresh lime, shallots, thyme and habaneros). These two made for a tangy, invigorating combo.
All entrees come with a small salad of diced heirloom tomato, avocado and red onion spiked with a delightful lime-paprika vinaigrette, and the one item that left me unsatisfied: overly dry rice with an underwhelming amount of beans.
But hold out for dessert. The housemade key lime pie ($7) is a brisk breeze of creamy citrus on a bed of crumbly graham cracker crust.