When You Wish Upon a Michelin Star: Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar Courts a Celestial Rank Worthy of the High-Caliber Culinary Guide
By Ed Murrieta
You’ll see stars when you dine at Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar.
Start with four- and five-star raves from critics, bloggers and Yelpers, an amuse bouche for the mind.
Then, enjoy multiple courses of modernist California cuisine – precise, composed plates of farm-fresh meats, fish, vegetables and grains that scale sophisticated heights, dazzling your eyes and palate.
The biggest star, of course — the Louis Prima of Enotria’s big night — is an unapologetic courtship of culinary recognition, specifically a sought-after star from Michelin, never minding that the regarded guide does not, currently at least, rate Sacramento restaurants.
At the center of this constellation of accolades and desires is the restaurant’s chef, Pajo Bruich, a Sacramento native whose self-taught artistry with heritage and molecular cooking techniques aspires to the French Laundry level.
A coral-colored fortress fronted with palm trees, Enotria opened 16 years ago in a scruffy neighborhood north of downtown and quickly established itself as an oenophile’s dream, with a wine list to rival the vaunted vintages of The Firehouse, long Sacramento’s premier fine-wining-and-dining destination.
“Food made for wine made for food” is Enotria’s tag line. Over time, Enotria’s wine aged well; its food didn’t. Following a $1.8 million make-over in 2010, Enotria doubled-down, determined to serve food that matched its top-flight service and wine program.
Inside, the intimate wine bar and 70-seat dining room are well-appointed and reserved, a low-key backdrop of earth and slate and shadows that put Bruich’s colorful, dramatic creations in the spotlight.
An interior courtyard and fire pit are but more of Enotria’s impressive amenities.
Equally impressive is Enotria’s well-drilled staff, despite more front-of-the-house changes than a restaurant of Enotria’s ambitious caliber should endure.
Bruich, who grew up in a family that owned a restaurant appliance store, was the chef in one Sacramento restaurant before joining Enotria last fall.
Bruich’s term at Lounge ON20 was short-lived – high-art molecular gastronomy in a high-fashion singles scene were not a match made in Michelin heaven — but it unleashed Bruich’s relentless creativity in a formal restaurant setting.
Prior to that, Bruich had staged pop-up dinners in Sacramento and private affairs in Santa Barbara and Napa.
Before taking the kitchen reigns at Enotria, Bruich apprenticed at a 2-star Michelin restaurant, San Francisco’s Benu, and reportedly rebuffed offers from top Bay Area restaurants.
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
Enotria’s prices also reach for the stars. A la carte entrees start at $20 for pork belly and top out at $42 for rib-eye steak with bordelaise.
The four-course classic tasting menu is $68. The five-course chef’s tasting menu is $95. Wine pairings are $65.
Tasting menu portions may not satisfy diners with larger appetites so factor in a fabulous charcuterie and cheese platter, $30.
I enjoyed two complimentary tasting-menu dinners at Enotria recently, plus tastes of a few plates from a mid-winter photo shoot.
Sourcing locally from small farmers like Feeding Crane Farms and Del Rio Botanicals, Bruich has a penchant for doing big things with small vegetables – whether it’s simply pickling baby carrots, infusing flavors into beets using molecular gastronomy techniques or framing a ruby-centered morsel of spring lamb with vividly verdant baby artichokes, the same way emerald earrings set off a beautiful red-head’s face.
Bruich’s plating is an artful approach of not just color and geometry but of alchemy and possibility. A dab of glowing pomegranate gel or an understated dollop of hazelnut espuma are not just accents on plates, but accents for palates. With them, Bruich invites diners to dance their forks through these accompaniments, both controlling the plate and giving diners a sense of discovery.
The descriptions on Bruich’s menus belie his daring innovations. Simple headings –- Sturgeon, Lamb, Delta Asparagus — are bare hints.
Sturgeon with apple and mustard was a tartare of locally farmed Passmore Ranch fish that’s been cold-smoked over apple and mesquite. It was served atop silky sabayon custard infused with smoked sturgeon and vermouth, and garnished with pickled Granny Smiths and pickled mustard seeds. The accompanying squid chips, unbilled on the menu, were prepared from a puree of squid flesh and squid ink, mixed with tapioca flour to bind the dough, which was rolled thin and then steamed in a Cryovac bag to set the proteins, after which the chips were dehydrated and then deep-fried. The result: inky-black puffs like chicharrones, ethereal bases for scooping at the hillock of smoky, tangy sturgeon.
Cuisine like this requires many hands and a tight ship. While Enotria has endured turnover in the sous chef ranks, one example of teamwork stands out: the supporting role that pastry chef Edward Martinez plays in the building blocks of Bruich’s cuisine.
The impossibly thin and goldenly crisp layer of pate brise that supported lusciously moist squash tart could only be mixed and rolled by a skilled hand. The crumbled mustard shortbread sprinkled atop sautéed mustard greens was sensationally savory.
Martinez’s red beet-pomegranate sorbet with sherry vinegar wasn’t a mere intermezzo or an a la mode offering; Bruich placed it smack-dab prominent in a salad — a tangy counterpart to earthy red and gold beets that had been slow-cooked sous vide, a chilled complement to the cool pillows of goat cheese mousse shot from a whipped cream charger and set in liquid nitrogen. The same sorbet rocked one of Martinez’s dark chocolate desserts, too.
While Bruich clearly orchestrates the courses, Martinez gets to solo. Yes, the pastry chef gets his own bread courses, and deservedly so. Martinez’s golf-ball-sized boules arrived throughout the meal: sweet, tender milk bread with sea salt, rich bacon challah with black lava salt, and round pretzel bread whose crisp-set malty crust is achieved by poaching in beer and baking. The accompanying butter? Martinez churns it from fresh cream and goat milk; maple syrup and hand-harvested sea salt deepen its allure.
My first tasting dinner at Enotria was a beer dinner curated by Charlie Bamforth, the professor of brewing and malting sciences at UC Davis, who chose five beers that complemented and challenged Bruich’s food. A starter of radishes and celery root panna cotta with Indian-spiced granola shined against the orangy scent of wheat beer. A malt-forward amber ale sweetened the bite of wild arugula and smoked pasta. But soft-ripened robiolla in a grilled cheese on brioche stood no chance against tart, sour ale.
I was the designated driver on my second tasting-menu experience so I skipped the wine pairings. However, when the sommelier overheard my dinner companion and I discussing the relative merits of Riesling for those of us who do not prefer most white wines, two glasses of German Riesling, Dr. F. Weins Prum Urziger Wurzgarten, were poured. Perfect. I saw stars.
Ed Murrieta writes about restaurants and farms for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. A veteran journalist, his food writing has appeared in the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Tacoma News Tribune and the Seattle Times. Contact him at [email protected]
Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar
1431 Del Paso Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95841