The more things change

Bistro 33 Midtown

1020 16th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 233-3633

The Haines brothers’ 33rd Street Bistro has been a longtime local favorite, packing them in daily for Pacific Northwest-inflected sandwiches, salads and pastas. I’ve always been a little baffled by the fervor Sacramentans seem to have for this place. It’s reliable, and I like it fine, but a lot of the food is just OK. To me it feels—not surprisingly, since the menu has never changed—a little “10 years ago.” You’re unlikely to get a bad meal, but there’s nothing earth-shattering going on.

Now the Haineses have exported the concept—and a large number of what I assume are their most popular menu items—to Bistro 33 Midtown. They also, last year, opened Bistro 33 Davis; the Midtown branch seems to be about an eighth the size of its Davis counterpart, but it packs in almost as much flashy (but different) décor.

The space, at the corner of 16th and K streets with windows on two sides, is done up in a mod, over-the-top silver-and-black color scheme, with fuzzy white drapes and a modern interpretation of black shag carpet. If I’m not mistaken, it’s composed of carpet tiles from trendy “modular floor covering” company Flor. Almost everything is sleek and hip: Glossy white tables look like the top of a last-generation iBook, while weirdly serpentine and trumpeting black chandeliers contrast with a silvery ceiling panel above, which is edged with scroll work and looks incongruously (yet appealingly) like something out of a Victorian silver chest.

A fair amount of the food remains the same as 33rd Street Bistro’s, particularly at breakfast—though that may be a meal at which one doesn’t want too much innovation. I’m happy to say, however, that there are some touches that are as different and fresh as the décor. The small plates, in particular, are largely new, with enjoyable results; they’re perfect for the lively after-work crowd the restaurant seems to be drawing. Some are even substantial enough to make a meal.

I tried the “prawns everyway,” three different preparations for large, juicy shrimp: nicely fried, with an unfortunately bland sauce; chilled with a fine, summery melon-cucumber dice; and seared with aioli. This was a nice combo—one of several trendy and thematically appropriate trios on the menu—but the price, $12.95, is a little steep for what is essentially three prawns, however large.

The ancho pork tostadas—three of them, again—were more generous. The crisp corn tortillas provided a yummy contrast to lots of shredded pork (delicious, though I couldn’t detect much ancho chili flavor), black beans and a sprinkling of queso fresco and crema.

From the salad menu, I also tried the sweet pea salad with bacon, which sounded fresh and summery yet filling. It was plagued, however, by too much creamy dressing, not enough bacon, few of the crisp snow peas and tons of too-soft regular peas, which didn’t seem as fresh as I had hoped.

Steamed clams, on the other hand, were a delicious and rich mélange of spicy chorizo and rich broth, with a cilantro pesto on top. My husband, however, complained that a lot of the clamshells were empty. The restaurant really should step up the bread, though (with the dishes, that is; it doesn’t offer a bread basket). What came with the clams was spongy, and the brioche under the eggs Benedict I tried on a morning visit tasted a little stale. With a plenitude of artisan bakers in the area now, the restaurant could be doing better on this front.

Desserts include yet another trio, plus a bag of hot doughnuts and something called chocolate pâté, which we got—a cube of solid fudginess, plus a tart raspberry sauce and “orange cream” (which didn’t taste much like orange). I confess I am a little baffled by the trend I’ve seen on many dessert menus to put a big hunk of ganache on a plate and call it dessert, but there’s no denying that it’s apt to be a crowd-pleaser, and here the chocolate was quite good.

Breakfast is available daily, and, at least on weekdays, it’s a good time to find a quiet table at this often-bustling little spot. We settled in for eggs Benedict—the eggs were nicely poached, though the pleasantly smooth hollandaise needed the zip of more lemon—a blueberry pancake for our daughter (our server was happy to offer a half-order), and the Northwest Scramble for me. The kitchen had a few timing problems; my scramble arrived lukewarm yet several minutes before the Benedict, from which I inferred that it had sat waiting for the other dish to be ready until the kitchen felt it could wait no more. The scramble was tasty enough, but the promised smoked salmon had no hint of smoky flavor, and overall it needed salt. And, unfortunately for a spot with roots in the Northwest, my cappuccino could have been better: The foam was loose and lacking, and the coffee itself too bitter.

The Haines brothers look to have another hit on their hands, and there are many good dishes here, though Bistro 33 Midtown needs to pay a little more attention to the details. The kitchen tends to under-season dishes, and a few are flawed in concept. If every aspect of the menu development and cooking got as much attention as the décor, the restaurant would be the better for it.