Still bean good
Sacramento, CA 95816
On Family Feud, “restaurants” will never be the highest scoring audience answer to the question “swapping.” But there’s been just such a swap in the City of Trees. Here’s the lowdown: Formoli’s Bistro, formerly of 3260-B J Street, now resides at 3839 J Street, the former home of Gonul’s J Street Cafe. Gonul’s, in the meantime, has evolved into the Vanilla Bean Bistro at 3260-B J Street.
Why the gastronomical musical chairs? Formoli’s, it seems, wanted a bigger stage upon which to strut while Gonul’s owners sought a more intimate setting. The switch doesn’t seem odd in the least because the sensibilities of both restaurants hug the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
Same verve. Different venues.
The new locales also dovetail with the personality of each place much better. The narrow, low-ceilinged bistrolike coziness of Vanilla Bean is more consonant with its understated, whatever-the-impulse-inspires alchemy that owner/chef Gonul Blum, has shown over the past eight years. Likewise, the welcoming pleasure that Formoli now exudes in its new sweeping cranberry-colored space is palpable and its offerings are seriously palatable. In short: Shoulda been this way from the start.
But back to Gonul’s. Blum hails from Turkey. That country’s culinary tradition provides a sturdy foundation but, for her, it serves more as a launching pad. Bread accompanies each meal. On one occasion it’s thin, phyllo-esque triangles. On another, it’s garlic bread rounds. The yogurt-based dipping sauces also differ. Cucumber chunks are a constant, but some Maras pepper in one version creates a red tinge and an almost sweet and decidedly nonyogurt taste.
For the garlic bread, the sauce’s yogurt dominates with an underpinning of basil. Along with Urfu, Maras peppers are cornerstones of Turkish cooking—the equivalent of black pepper here. Neither Maras nor Urfu are scalding, although Urfu is hotter. The redder Maras, grown largely in the Kahramanmaras province, is sweet and redolent.
A recurring feature of Turkish cuisine practiced at Vanilla Bean is the inclusion of fruit—preserved and fresh—in many dishes. For instance, the tabbouleh salad here isn’t comprised of the commonly encountered mint, cucumber, red-onion infused amalgam. The generous pile of tawny wheat bulgur is merely an enticement; at the mound’s compass points are broad swathes of tomato with mixed greens and cheerful flower petals, crisp bell pepper strips and chunks of sweet persimmon beneath the bulgur mound.
’Tis the start of persimmon season, the redoubtable Juan, our waiter, says, before reiterating Gonul’s passion for the fresh and seasonal—which is a bit of lily gilding, given that the large rectangular containers on the L-shaped bar brim with corpulent beefsteak tomatoes.
And, finishing the thought on Gonul’s tabbouleh: It delivers a roundhouse-punch flavor combination—of course, a pinch or two of Maras wouldn’t hurt.
The blob of homemade yogurt complements the curry of the lemony lentil soup, studded with periodic potato chunks. Juan, who clearly loves his work, recommends without hesitation the turlu, which is a thick stew starring meatballs and chicken with a hint of curry. The brown rice that accompanies it is enlivened with pieces of preserved blood orange. A summer salad, presumably soon to leave the menu, of heirloom tomatoes, peach, apple, sweet shallots and feta is a stellar opening act. In its absence, go for the frisee with walnuts, goat cheese and dried cranberries in the driver’s seat.
Of course, Formoli’s is a few blocks away. But despite some tantalizing initial fork work, far more investigation is required before an informed assessment of Formoli’s charms can be made. Bummer.