Saddle Rock, Sacramento’s first restaurant, rises from the ashes of history, reinvented by a new generation of culinary pioneers. It’s time to reconsider the oyster, among other delectations of Gold Rush gastronomy.
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The same could be said for the restaurant’s space, which is warm with touches of mid-century styling in the details. Jarosz steered clear of old-timeyness in favor of millenial chic, with Eames-era lighting, rough-hewn yet modernist tables, tufted leather and wool sofas. The references to the past are subtle, including a wall of leather-bound books and a commissioned portrait of Mark Twain by local artist Raphael Delgado that graces the bar area. “I really like the idea of having that modern feel, but then having the reference to history,” Jarosz says.
The small plates menu is cleverly titled “Snacks, Salad & Hardtack,” the latter a wink at the stale, dense biscuits the miners ate to stave off hunger. Masera’s biscuit is the opposite of hardtack: fresh, soft, and larded with rendered and crumbled chicken skin and white cheddar cheese. “It just bleeds chicken fat throughout the biscuit,” Masera says, “and then we serve it with juniper butter and pine bud syrup, so you get the flavor of the mountains. I’m trying to capture the terroir.”
But the most popular appetizer at Saddle Rock is also one of the most deceptively simple: the chicken fried catfish nuggets served with preserved lemon and fried herbs and chilies. The catfish from Passmore Ranch has a delicate, clean flavor (it’s flushed in fresh water circulation tanks prior to harvesting). Masera’s stroke of genius here is grilling the preserved lemon. With a generous squeeze over top, the dish achieves a hyper-saturated citrus flavor with an almost dark intensity, the chilies providing a fresh, bright crunch. The nuggets arrive without a dipping sauce, and they don’t need one.
The lounge and bar area of Saddle Rock is conducive to lingering over small plates. One could have a perfectly delicious evening there without ever taking a table in the back dining room. The extended front patio is ideal for warm fall nights, and the groupings of low-slung sofas near the entrance make the place feel more like a lounge with a restaurant than a restaurant with a bar.
The nicely curated cocktail menu created by mixologist Karina Martinez, formerly of LowBrau, will ensure that it stays that way, with drinks that include crafty notes. For example, the Cabrillo is made with rum, absinthe and Szechuan peppercorns, and served with a rolled, dried fig leaf “cigar” that’s ignited and clipped to smoulder away on the side of your glass for added aromatic punch. The Ramos gin fizz is lighter on alcohol and towers frothily above the rim of the cup.
The exotic ingredient lists belie the deftness of Martinez’s hand with a cocktail. The Dirty Means—a bourbon infused with peanuts and food-grade leather (yes, leather), laced with Thai chilies, Mexican chocolate and peanut oil, and swirling with flecks of edible gold leaf—may sound desperately hip, but proves to be a surprisingly smooth drink that tastes like a classic cocktail. The leather functions the way musk or civet does in a perfume blend, as an under-the-radar animalic note.
“Karina is a savant,” Masera says. “She found food-grade leather! I love how her brain works.”
Meanwhile, the servers at Saddle Rock are smartly trousered and tailored and look like they should be riding bicycles with giant front wheels to work, and they’ve been educated with an encyclopedic knowledge of the restaurant’s roots and the reasoning behind the cuisine. Jarosz even brought in local food historian Maryellen Burns, author of Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes, to deliver a history lesson.
On a recent visit our server, Julia, easily describes the origins of the Hangtown Fry’s ingredients (the Gold Rush omelet was created to showcase the most decadent ingredients available at the time: oysters, bacon and eggs). Masera’s version uses goat cheese and V. Miller Meats’ coffee-rubbed bacon, which is exclusive to Saddle Rock.
Julia recommends the beef Wellington, a reimagining of the classic in which the traditional puff pastry encloses not a tenderloin but a rich short rib braised with a hint of fennel and accompanied by a rich bordelaise and a nicely poached egg.
Masera’s menu gives a nod to the culinary influence of the region’s very first farm-to-fork restaurateurs, the Chinese immigrants who came in search of gold but often ended up finding it more lucrative to feed the other miners, many of whom had scurvy, and Saddle Rock features a dish that was created by them.
The 49ers “weren’t eating any vegetables, just meat and starch,” Masera explains. The Chinese “found this abundance of amazingness all around them, and they just started grabbing fresh vegetables, chopping them up, stir-frying and tossing them over rice or noodles.” The miners went particularly crazy for this new dish, chop suey, word of which made it all the way to New York, igniting an ethnic food trend and giving birth to the westernized Chinese food of every American’s childhood.
Saddle Rock’s desserts are more unfettered by tradition. The Bay Chocolate, a unique take on devil’s food, is a heap of rich brown loam that bears no resemblance to a cake. As Masera says, it’s “supposed to look like someone pulled a pie knife out of the land and put it on your plate.” It’s nicely salted with an herbaceous note from sorrel. The toffee roasted pear with Brie sabayon and olive crumble, Masera’s “play on a cheese plate,” is unctuous, pungent and ever-so-slightly caramelized, as savory as it is sweet: a dessert for non-dessert lovers. And fans of Masera’s fabled brown butter cookies from Mother will be thrilled to note that they are here, listed on the menu as “BBC: the one and only.”
Masera sees what he’s doing with Saddle Rock as an indication of what comes after farm to fork. “I’m trying to [go] deeper,” he says. “Why do we have these amazing farms? Why do we have this amazing city? Where did it all come from?” When people ask him what kind of food he’s cooking at Saddle Rock, Masera replies, simply, “It’s Sacramento food.” S