One of my favorite things about January in Sacramento is Dine Downtown Week. Every year, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership rounds up some of Downtown’s best restaurants to offer diners a fantastic, three-course, prix fixe menu. At just $30 per person (with some restaurants offering special wine pairings for an additional charge), this is a wonderful way for folks to try new restaurants or revisit old favorites without breaking the bank. And let’s face it: after the toll the holidays can take on many of our wallets, any deal is greatly appreciated!
Last year, select bloggers were given the opportunity to do a “preview” of the Dine Downtown Menu at the restaurant of their choice, so I gladly jumped at the chance to participate when they contacted me again this year. I decided to go with Restaurant Thir13en, the newest venture from chef & restaurateur, Adam Pechal (owner & chef of the very popular Tuli Bistro, also participating in Dine Downtown Week). Like last year, I let the menu lead me and while both menus looked fantastic, there was something about Thir13en’s menu that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. Since I like to support new businesses, especially in this difficult economy, I wanted I’d give the “new kid” a try first.
Located at the site of the historic Sterling Hotel on 13th & H Streets, Thir13en is a cozy, intimate restaurant that instantly made me think “date night”. While my date that night was my lovely mother, we both agreed that Thir13en was a perfect setting for the kind of date on which you actually get to talk to someone, rather than spending your time shouting over a loud bar. With simple, classic decor accented by whimsical touches throughout, the small, softly lit space invites you to sit back & stay awhile. Outside, an ample patio allows diners to enjoy the beautiful spring & summer nights, and a larger private room is also available inside for parties or other special functions.
We arrived shortly before 7pm, so the space was still relatively quiet with a few diners seated at individual tables, and a couple others at the far end of their larger communal table. Our hostess graciously heeded our request to be seated a little further from the door, since it was extremely cold & windy that evening. After we were seated, a chilled carafe of spring water with cucumber slices was brought over for us to enjoy as we looked over our menus. Our server, Wendy, arrived shortly thereafter to answer questions, but we’d already come prepared to try one of each item on the special menu, so our meal began quickly.
After enjoying a few sips of the Canella Prosecco Mom decided we should enjoy, we were served the two dishes featured for the first course. The first, Local Toy Box Beets with Pistachio-crusted Goat Cheese, Arugula, Blood Oranges, Shaved Fennel & Golden Balsamic Vinaigrette, was a gorgeous explosion of colors elegantly presented on the long, rectangular dish. Fresh & vibrant green, the tender leaves of the arugula were accented by bite-sized pieces of jewel-toned beets, while crisp rings of fennel were softened by juicy blood orange sections. Everything was tied together by one of the most incredible balsamic vinaigrettes I’ve ever tasted. Perfectly balanced, the dressing was neither too oily nor too acidic, and the lighter golden balsamic accented the vegetables, rather than overpowered them. The generous mound of pistachio-crusted goat cheese was soft & warm on the inside, and was a lovely complement to the delicate salad.
Lovely as the salad was, it was nearly impossible to keep our eyes away from the next dish: 12 Hour Beeler Ranch Pork Belly with Apple “3″ ways, Parsnip Chips & Bulls Blood. To start with, it was such a dramatic presentation that it was difficult to look away. A small skyscraper of pork belly, cooked to a rich, golden brown, sat atop a delicate pool of apple-ginger puree with wedges of caramelized apples at its flanks. Ribbons of crispy parsnip chips & colorful microgreens decorated the top of the smooth-as-butter pork belly, while further down the plate, dots of gastrique led to a small pile of tart green apple shreds. It was an exquisite appetizer and by far one of our favorite dishes of the evening.
For our second course, we started off with the Sous Vide & seared Passmore Sturgeon with house made Tasso-braised Rainbow Chard, Buttermilk Parsnip Puree and Sauce Almondine. The sturgeon was moist & perfectly cooked, the way only sous vide cooking can do, and topped by a good amount of warm sauce almondine. Meaty chunks of tasso ham lent a delicate smokiness to the tender braised chard which was seasoned just right and not overcooked like some greens at other restaurants. As for the parsnip puree? I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive about trying it, since I find parsnips to be a bit on the bitter side. Color me a parsnip convert after this puree, because it was nothing like I expected. It was smooth, creamy and highlighted the slightly sweeter side of the parsnip rather than its usual bitter aftertaste. Perhaps it was the method of preparation that made it so delightful, but I just couldn’t get enough of that parsnip puree. The only thing I would have changed was the amount – it was too much for the size of the fish it accompanied and overwhelmed the platter (but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take the rest with me to enjoy at home!).
We both fell in love with the Lucky Dog Ranch Sirloin Steak sous Vide & Skillet seared with Oregon Bleu Cheese Butter, Wild Mushroom Ragu, Whiskey Demi & Sous Vide Kennebec Potatoes. Also cleverly presented, this steak was so tender it literally melted in your mouth (again, thanks to the sous vide cooking), with just the slightest amount of bleu cheese butter melted on top. A sinful ragu of golden, black and oyster mushrooms lay between the sculpture of thick “fries” and the sumptuous steak, tying both items together with its deep, rich flavors. I dubbed the dish Umami Heaven; my mom just glared at me quietly each time I tried to spear another piece of steak. Clearly, this was yet another winning dish.
By this time we were both starting to get full, so we put dinner on pause in order to save room for the final course. With choices like Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Orange Glaze, Winter Citrus & Almond Biscotti and Chocolate Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce & Salty Caramel Ice Cream, you just don’t say no to dessert!
While my mom preferred the panna cotta, I felt they were both equally strong desserts. The panna cotta was, indeed, sheer perfection. Delicately flavored by the vanilla bean, what brought it all together was the blend of sweet-tart blood orange sections and the citrus glaze. Ours was served without the biscotti, our server explained, because the pastry chef was going to make those from scratch once the event finally launched, but I didn’t miss it at all.
The chocolate bread pudding was dark, rich & bittersweet, the perfect foil to the scoop of sinfully sweet & salty caramel ice cream that was its crowning glory. Drizzled generously with a buttery sweet whiskey sauce, this dessert was every New Year’s resolution’s nightmare, and oh, was it divine! Mom felt it was too rich for her liking so she left that one to me, which I didn’t complain about at all (who in her right mind complains about salty caramel ice cream?). However, the size of the dessert was, again, a bit big to thoroughly enjoy. Packed tightly into a martini glass, there was just too much bread pudding for the amount of ice cream. After a meal made with fresh, locally sourced, organic ingredients, it was a bit overwhelming. But our server once again graciously obliged to our request to box it up for us for us to enjoy later, so it all worked out.
Which brings me to my final notes about Thir13en: the service. In past reviews I’ve stated that I will forgive poor quality of food over poor service at a restaurant any day. After growing up with parents who worked in the restaurant business, and after dabbling a bit in that world myself when I was younger, I know – and expect – quality service at a restaurant like Thir13en. And they definitely delivered. Wendy, our server, was friendly and attentive without being pushy or fake with overdone sweetness. She answered all our questions easily and heeded our requests, including taking the time to write out exactly which three ways the apples for the pork belly dish were prepared. Such attention to detail is much appreciated and makes the customer feel special, which makes you want to come back for more.
All in all, I’d say Thir13en is definitely a must-try during Dine Downtown Week and beyond. With a focus on everything fresh & local, I’m sure the menus for spring and summer months will be amazing, and that little patio will be perfect for dining al fresco during nicer weather. It may not be the rockin’ “see and be seen” type of restaurant that some folks are after these days, but that’s exactly why I like it: it’s a place where you can relax and take the time to enjoy your meal slowly, savoring each moment rather than rushing about to take the next Facebook-worthy photo.
So, if you’re a fan of quality food that showcases the best of what California’s central valley has to offer, and prefer a relaxed setting for dining & conversation, give Thir13en a try. I know I’ll be back!
Dine Downtown Week runs through Wednesday, January 18th. Reservations are strongly recommended.