Starlet deep

When California Fat’s in Old Sacramento closed for three months for remodeling and revamped its menu, the restaurant practically shouted its intention to become a serious dining destination, not just a place where tourists washed up after a horse-drawn carriage ride. And the redesign is brilliant, having turned the space into the kind of high-concept gustatory theater locals don’t get enough of. I don’t know why. Even in Las Vegas, you can eat serious food in highly thought-out spaces.

Few restaurants in Sacramento combine visual style with food worth eating, but California Fat’s is trying to change that. The redesigned space is elegant and striking, impressing the senses the minute you step inside the doors and take a look at the huge photomontages of Chinese immigrants hanging from the sandblasted brick walls. The multilevel space offers several distinct dining areas while still remaining visually connected: the more casual dim sum bar up front, the bamboo room upstairs, the dramatic waterfall room and a private dining room.

The intimate booths leading to the waterfall are a popular choice. The booths are demarcated by red lacquer-washed wood and lit with rosy blown-glass pendant lights. Rustic wood shutters and baskets lining the rafters complete the haute Chinese peasant look.

But, although the stellar ambience whets the appetite, the food doesn’t deliver on the promise. If this restaurant were a teenager, a teacher would be saying in that disappointed adult tone, “I know you have the brains. If only you would apply yourself. You have the potential.” Potential is a double-edged sword. Turning in work as good as that of the normal Joe sitting next to you just isn’t good enough. You have to be better, faster, smarter, stronger. You have to live up to your potential.

The food isn’t bad. It’s good, the kind of good you’d expect from any Chinese restaurant that isn’t an absolute dive. But, in these surroundings, you expect more. You expect the restaurant to take the kind of chances with its menu that it took with the decor. But there has been a failure of nerve here. It could be because of the location. It could be that the owners don’t trust the hometown palates, and certainly California Fat’s is enormously popular.

The restaurant promotes dim sum, but it only offers a list of 14 starters, including several salads. The dim sum sampler ($10.50) consists of three of the offerings: shrimp har gow, pork sui mei and chicken potstickers. The dim sum were attractively presented, though, with three of each kind nestled in a bamboo steamer lined with banana leaves and accompanied by a variety of dipping sauces. The overall effect, however, was bland. The pork sui mei was decent, but it could have been a little brighter in flavor. The chicken potstickers suffered a similar fate. The shrimp har gow were marred by a thicker-than-expected dough that did not seem completely cooked on the inside. A separate order of chicken satay ($5.95) was quite good; the chicken remained tender through the grilling process. The peanut-based satay sauce was less sweet than usual—a nice touch, but not especially spicy.

The kung pao chicken entree ($10.95) was marked spicy in the menu, which was a needless precaution. The flavors were fresh, but the fresh sliced jalapeno peppers meant to heat the dish were definitely not doing the job. The honey walnut prawns ($13.95) are one of the most popular items on the menu, proving that America will live and die by its sweet tooth. The combination of crispy coating and honey glaze proved irresistible to the kids in our party, regardless of their actual age. The candied walnuts disappeared even faster than the shrimp.

Only the oven-braised sea bass ($15.50) rose to a higher level. The shreds of shitake mushrooms and chives mixed with the chili soy and ginger sauce to harmonize with the delicate, perfectly steamed bass. It was definitely a dish worth ordering again. Most entrees on the menu are served family style, with a large bowl of rice to share. The rice was American style, with dry, separate grains of rice rather than the stickier version commonly seen in Chinese restaurants. I like both versions, but sticky rice is easier to manipulate with chopsticks.

Even the legendary banana cream pie ($4.50) was merely good, with the whipped cream topping suffering from a strange consistency. Perhaps it was over-whipped, as it reportedly is just cream, powdered sugar and vanilla.

California Fat’s has had a makeover worthy of a Hollywood starlet, but there’s little substance behind the style. It’s that old curse of having potential and not following through. A little less timidity would go a long way toward rectifying that.