The party’s in the kitchen

I was standing by myself in the dining room, bothering no one, when a voice boomed, “Hi, young lady! What’s your name?” I turned to see a man in funky pants and a chef’s jacket. “Have you been here before?” he boomed again. Now why on earth, I wondered, would Randall Selland care who I was? He’s a celebrity in Sacramento’s culinary world and I’m a veritable food rube in comparison. Not bloody likely!

Ah, but that’s the beauty of The Kitchen. Randall Selland cares about everybody. Everyone at The Kitchen cares about everybody. You’ll never want for food friends again.

The Kitchen is the best dinner party you will ever attend with 50 strangers. From the moment you walk in, you drink, you laugh, and chat the night away, mostly with The Kitchen’s staff, but with other diners too. By the end, you’ve experienced a healthy dose of gezellig—that warm and cozy feeling Dutch people get when they’re a bit drunk and having a boisterous good time with friends and don’t want to leave.

At the heart of the evening is the show. Fifty servings of five elaborate courses are plated before your eyes. Thursday through Saturday, Selland hosts the show, explaining the ingredients, where he procured them, and how the dishes are prepared. Some parts of a dish are cooked right in front of you, while other time-consuming elements are assembled beforehand. Even with the labor-intensive ingredients pre-prepared, a typical “Demonstration Dinner,” as they’re called, takes about four and a half hours.

Hardly fast food. And at $115 a head, neither are they fast-food prices.

Being on a frugal budget myself, the new Wednesday night demo dinners, with its scaled-down price and time frame ($85 per person, three and a half hours) seemed more manageable. Moreover, it didn’t take two months lead-time to reserve.

Light and airy, with a contemporary feel, The Kitchen is a visually stunning place. Stainless steel-and-glass doors open onto a veranda. An entire wall contains a built-in wine rack, which segues into a see-through wine room, together holding an impressive selection of more than 400 mostly local wines. The U-shaped marble beige countertop seating 20-plus surrounds the action, while several high tables, accommodating another 25-plus, form an outer layer around the counter. Large arrangements of springtime flowers and mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables add vibrant splashes of color.

On Wednesday nights, chef de cuisine Spencer Richins plays chef-host, abbreviating what Randall Selland does. Slightly brash and full of good energy, Richins, who has been with the Sellands for about two years, looks like he could give Jamie Oliver of Naked Chef fame a run for his money.

We started with a salad triptych. On the left was a circular mound of delicately layered spring vegetables with a tangy buttermilk and crème fraîche dressing. In the center were crisply fried rock shrimp. On the right were chopped endive and frisée tucked in a modest leaf of butter lettuce. The salad was light, pleasant, with the robust flavors of some 10 different vegetables and lettuces shining through. I had asked for wine pairings with each course (an extra $30), and so enjoyed a fruity sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (one of the rare non-California offerings) with the salad.

The second course was even better. One large square ravioli filled with smoked Niman Ranch ham shank, mascarpone and ricotta sat atop a piped-in mound of marrow bean mousse, which in turn sat in a rich rosemary consommé. The dish was topped by beautiful magenta clover-like sprigs of amaranth. The whole combination was deeply satisfying in both flavor and texture, and was enhanced by a robust pinot noir from Carneros.

I was in disbelief when the third course was even better. Succulent lobster, moist, flavorful corn-flour crusted Scottish salmon, and an earthy, chewy black Thai rice cake sat in a layer of preserved lime-roasted jalapeño cream and was topped by bright trout roe. The jalapeños had been blanched in three changes of water, so the cream had all of the flavor of jalapeño, but none of the heat. It went amazingly well with the seafood. I was so savoring each bite I almost forgot to drink the crisp chardonnay from Sonoma.

The last main course was also a showstopper. Slow grilled Niman Ranch aged rib eye with mushrooms was presented with a rabbit knish. The rabbit had been braised to a lovely tenderness, and was delicately meaty but not too much so for the pastry. The rib eye was succulent, having been spit-roasted for outer crisp, and then sliced, with a dab of olive oil, salt and pepper, before being cooked individually to a tender pink. A sangiovese from Napa Valley graced this girthy course.

Things were winding down. For dessert, a bittersweet and white chocolate bread pudding came with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and diced berries—a simple coda to the robust flavors and creative pairings of the four wonderful courses preceding it. Coffee and the 1976 Smith Woodhouse Tawny Port hit the last note perfectly.

It seems impossible to have sailed home after five exquisite courses, but I did. Though my pocketbook was quite a bit lighter too, I felt richer for the experience. I’m already saving up for my next brilliant gezellig-inducing meal at The Kitchen.