In all the years I’ve lived in Sacramento (which is coming up on nine years now… wow!), one of my big I Should Have Visited This Place By Now regrets is not heading to the famed Crocker Art Museum. A Sacramento icon, the Crocker had a lovely expansion built next to the original structure a couple years ago, and the exhibits, my friends tell me, have been incredible. I’ve been dying to give it a good tour, but haven’t been able to make that happen just yet.
I have, however, had the chance to sample some of the food from their cafe, aptly named the Crocker Cafe. Housed in the newer half of the museum, the cafe opened back in 2010 with famed Sacramento restaurateurs Patrick & Bobbin Mulvaney at the helm. It has since changed hands, and last week I was lucky enough to tag along as Sacramento Bee writer, Allen Pierleoni’s, lunch buddy, so we could check out the new new Crocker Cafe.
The cafe offers museum goers several options for how to enjoy the food conceptualized by the Woolston family (yes, those Woolstons… the same folks who run the ever-so-awesome Matteo’s Pizza). There’s the grab-n-go section, offering a variety of sandwiches, salads and other sides; regular table service with traditional menu offerings like burgers or entree salads; and a rotating menu of daily specials. It’s a great way to appeal to all visitors, as some may want to chow down quickly before going back to the art exhibits, while others may want to take a longer, more leisurely break.
Pierleoni, the veteran Bee writer who pens the Counter Culture column, thought it would be a good idea for us to sample a few things from each menu. We started off at the counter, where he had me do some of the ordering (a very brave act, considering my terrible decision-making capabilities when faced with a new menu). From the grab & go section we grabbed (haha) a tuna sandwich on wheat, then placed our orders for the one of the specials, their mahogany chicken. Mahogany chicken? When we asked what was involved in its preparation, we were told that it was similar to barbecue chicken, only with a dry rub rather than a thick sauce. It certainly seemed intriguing, so we both settled on that, along with a couple of sides that came as part of the daily special.
Orders placed for that portion of our meal, we took a seat in the spacious dining room, airy, lovely, and filled with natural light. My food blogger mind immediately noted that this was a prime location for food photography, and I kicked myself for not having brought the good camera, but my phone seems to have done a pretty decent job. After perusing the table service menu a bit more, we finally decided to go with some lentil soup, steak, and a citrus salmon dish that sounded fabulous.
For the grab & go selection, the tuna sandwich was pretty good. I’m more of a savory tuna salad lover than sweet, so I was quite pleased that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of sweet pickle relish. I wasn’t really feeling the choice of bread, though, which was a bit heavy on the rye for my liking, and not very moist. The tuna itself was great – not bland, not overly seasoned, and perfect on the tuna-to-mayo ratio, and the single leaf of perfectly green Romaine lettuce tasted crisp & fresh.
The vegan lentil soup was a bit of a letdown, not because it didn’t look lovely and chock full of veggies, but because it just needed some oomph. Some kick! Some pizzazz! The lentils were perfectly cooked, as were the evenly cut chunks of carrots, celery and tomatoes; I just felt like it really lacked the depth that is key in a good lentil soup. Some cumin, a bit of paprika, even just a wee bit more salt & pepper would have taken this soup up a couple of notches.
The big surprise for me was actually the mahogany chicken. While I’m a fan of chicken, it’s not something I typically order in restaurants because I’m frequently disappointed. Rather than a rich, flavorful serving of dark meat, most restaurants usually offer some sort of boneless, skinless chicken breast variation, which tends to be a dry, tasteless affair masked by a sauce or complicated side. For my money, it’s not always worth it to get a chicken dish at a restaurant, so I tend to stick with seafood, pork or beef dishes to get the most bang for my buck.
The Crocker Cafe’s special, however, was everything a restaurant chicken breast dish should be: moist, tender and full of flavor, lent from a good mix of a nice marinade and a solid dry rub. The generous dollop of tomatillo & avocado salsa that topped the chicken served not as a cover up, but as a delightful enhancement to the dish. The portion of chicken we received was quite generous, so it could have easily made a satisfying meal with just a simple side of fresh greens. But the special also came with a choice of two sides, making it a nice value. We went with the black eyed pea salad, which was a nice, light alternative to more traditional legume salads, and a shrimp & rice salad, which I liked but Allen felt was a bit too tangy for his liking. They were both very good sides, but truthfully, neither of us could focus on anything but that chicken for quite some time.
Until they brought out the big entrees.
Presentation-wise, everything that’s served at the Crocker Cafe is quite lovely, but the steak and the salmon dishes were beautifully executed. The steak, which we learned was a bavette cut (similar to a flank cut, only with more marbling), came with a generous portion of mashed potatoes and some gorgeous broccoli rabe – simple, basic meat & potatoes meal, but aesthetically pleasing all the same. Thick, juicy, and spiced with cumin and pink peppercorns, the steak was topped with a generous dollop of blue cheese butter, which immediately induced an eye-roll of delight once I had a quick taste. The mashed potatoes were the epitome of classic comfort food, and the broccoli rabe was fresh, tender, and full of spring flavors (and there was a lot of it, too, which made Poor Girl very happy).
But the salmon… oh the presentation of that lovely citrus salmon! Served alongside baby bok choy and green rice cakes, the thick cut of salmon was cooked to perfection – so much so that I spent about 7 minutes just snapping close ups of the darned thing – and topped with sections of blood orange, grapefruit and mandarin. The combination of colors was spectacular and was, hands down, the most lovely dish of the day. The only flaw in an otherwise wonderful dish was the citrus reduction that was meant to tie everything together. It was almost right – sweet, slightly savory, and very citrus-y – it was just too tangy, and kind of overpowered the delicate flavors of the rest of the meal.
Last but not least: dessert. I don’t think Al was planning on getting dessert, but he did mention it in passing, and dessert is part of a balanced meal (in my world), so he very graciously acquiesced. A fruit tart filled to the brim with fresh berries looked most tempting from the selection of baked treats, but for some reason I couldn’t take my eyes off the shortbread cookies. They were very thick and looked a little like gift boxes, and small enough to be a nice ending to such a large meal. I am so glad we split that thing, because it was so rich! Deliciously, beautifully, buttery rich, tiny pieces crumbling from our forks as we dug into the moister, buttery center. I know it’s just a cookie, but if you’re ever in that cafe and just want a sweet treat, I highly recommend giving that one a try.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the Crocker Cafe – from the lovely setting to the food, and to the wonderful service. The fact that I can go there anytime without having to worry about paying museum admission is a nice bonus since most museums aren’t that generous with their restaurants. Not that finally viewing the fine works within the actual museum isn’t still high on my list of Things To Do In Sacramento; I just have a feeling I might need more of that mahogany chicken someday, or one of those shortbread cookies, or…
To read the review from the real pro, Allen Pierleoni, check out this week’s edition of Counter Culture here.
The Crocker Cafe by Supper Club is located at 216 O Street. Open T, W, F, Sa, Su from 10am to 4:3opm; Thursdays from 10am to 8:30pm.