Great New Places to Eat
There’s a saying that when one door closes, another one opens. Last year was tough on local eateries, but some very exciting restaurant doors have opened in the past few months, including one inspired by a food truck, another by a 56-foot-long bunny, and others by cuisines ranging from French to Mongolian and Indian to Southern (grits, anyone?). So feast your eyes on our favorite new spots, and you’ll see why we think the food scene is looking very sunny-side up.
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Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar - midtown’s unassuming, likable and quietly stylish new craft cocktail bar and farm-to-table restaurant—opened Feb. 10, with a speed befitting its namesake. “It was a very aggressive opening,” laughs partner Matt Nurge, the chief mixologist, who formerly mixed drinks at nearby hotspot Shady Lady Saloon; chef-partner John Bays heads up the kitchen. (The other partners are longtime restaurant marketer Sonny Mayugba and high-profile restaurateur Randy Paragary, though Red Rabbit is not part of the Paragary Restaurant Group.) Aggressive indeed: The place came together so fast that the liquor license arrived at 11 a.m. on the day it opened, after just a few months of preparation time—far less than the average restaurant. The team joined forces in October; at the time, both Bays and Nurge were at other jobs (Bays has cooked in such kitchens as Mulvaney’s and Il Fornaio).
The fast opening was facilitated by a minimal remodel of the space on J Street, formerly occupied by Red Lotus (the innovative Asian restaurant opened by Kru’s celebrated chef Billy Ngo). The team tweaked lighting and seating, but left the bones of the place—like an exposed brick wall and rough-hewn, exposed wood ceiling beams—alone. One critical change, however, was lowering the booths to ensure better sight lines and a more communal feel throughout the restaurant. “We really wanted to extend the idea of community into the space itself,” says Nurge. Both he and Bays hope that the bar-restaurant will be an accessible gathering place for the neighborhood and beyond. “We want this to be the place where anyone can come and enjoy it,” he says. “We’re not trying to be the hippest midtown spot. We want to be everything to everyone.”
Nurge and Bays see the place as evenly split between bar and restaurant: “It’s 50-50,” says Bays. “It’s not a bar with a restaurant, or a restaurant with a bar,” adds Nurge. “It’s both.” And the cocktail program and the menu are each designed to be approachable and fun. “I want to bring craft cocktails to an everyday neighborhood bar,” says Nurge. House drinks—some classic, like the Old Cuban, and some Nurge’s own invention, like the Krakow Salt Mine, which combines bison-grass vodka, apple cider and spicy ginger beer—are based on fresh juices and hand-muddled herbs, and the menu divides them by type—“juicy,” “bitter,” “rich” or “bright and tart.” Every day there’s a different fresh alcoholic punch for sipping, a steal at $5. Examples have ranged from rum and spiced honey to the iPunch 2 (with freshly pressed apple juice), which Red Rabbit debuted on Feb. 24, Steve Jobs’ birthday. The types vary by the whim of the bartender. “We do a different punch depending on our mood and seasonal product,” says Nurge.
And the food? Bays has come up with a menu of both bar nibbles and heartier entrées showcasing global influences, all of which pair well with the bar’s drinks or the regional beers on tap (such as Rubicon IPA). Hits on the menu so far include the “farm animal lollipops”—juicy beef, lamb and chicken meatballs paired with different dipping sauces; the beer-onion patty melt with Gruyère cheese; the pork belly piccata, a melting, crisp-edged piece of the fatty meat with a sharp lemon-caper sauce; and sandwiches, like the fried egg burger and the braised brisket patty melt. They’ve also recently started serving brunch, which includes cocktails like the spicy Bloody Mary and the evocatively named “Corpse Reviver #2,” and fun dishes like “Scotty’s Green Eggs and Yams,” which is poached eggs on toast with yam gratin and Bloomsdale spinach hollandaise sauce, or “The Clogger,” a fried egg sandwich with bacon and ham, as well as cheddar. Bays’ fare takes inspiration from the farm-to-table movement, but never feels preachy. In fact, the restaurant quietly puts its founders’ ideals front and center, not only sourcing ingredients locally but also putting the happiness of its employees right in its mission statement—and paying five percent of all profits directly to the employees.
That local emphasis is fitting—even the restaurant’s name was, yes, inspired by the arresting new sculpture at Sacramento’s airport; the partners liked the sound of it and their designers liked the look (the logo’s leaping red rabbit is reproduced in neon on the brick exterior)—because somehow the quickly opened, brand-new Red Rabbit feels like it’s been in Sacramento forever. Its partners are all longtime residents or natives (Nurge’s mom was a server for years at the late, lamented bar Joe Marty’s, and he says he grew up behind the bar there).
Red Rabbit fits our city well: It’s a little under the radar, not too full of itself, easy to like, and easy to hang out in. As Bays says, “We do our best to make people happy.”