First Look: The new Saddle Rock brings a Gold Rush of flavor to midtown
The reincarnation of Sacramento’s first restaurant, Saddle Rock, opened its doors last night, across the street from Broderick Midtown, one of owner Chris Jarosz’s other establishments (the growing list includes the downscale Broderick Roadhouse in West Sacramento and the upscale Localis in midtown).
The original Saddle Rock in Old Sacramento began serving miners during the Gold Rush, and only closed its doors in 1995. The new Saddle Rock is an inspired homage to the old, but the address—and the concept—have moved decidedly uptown. Chef Matt Masera, formerly of Mother and Empress Tavern, has enlivened his Gold Rush-inspired menu with fresh ideas and ingredients, and the result is nostalgic without being anachronistic. The same could be said for the space, which is warm and modern, the references to the past subtle, including a portrait of Mark Twain that graces the bar area and some wall sculptures composed of antique chair parts, but gray flannel sofas and modernist light fixtures keep the atmosphere sleek and chic.
In the 1850s, the local diet consisted of feast and famine: Working miners subsisted on hardtack, basically wallpaper paste (flour and water), formed into biscuits and baked for five or six hours. But oh, once a miner struck pay dirt, it was all about champagne, oysters, bacon and peaches. Until now, these hearty, regional dishes have been all but impossible to find on our local-centric menus; with its emphasis on luxurious, preserved ingredients, Gold Rush cuisine could be said to be the opposite of farm-to-fork. Masera's challenge was to honor the richness and decadence of that culinary ethos while keeping it fresh.
One of the most popular dishes on Saddle Rock's new small plates menu (cleverly titled “Snacks, Salad & Hardtack” although the latter, thankfully, is not on offer) is also one of the most deceptively simple: the chicken fried catfish nuggets served with preserved lemon, fried herbs and summer chilis. 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 chiles providing a fresh, bright crunch. The nuggets arrive without a dipping sauce, and they don’t need one.
In another small plate standout, Masera has resurrected the Gold Rush version of Yorkshire pudding with his oyster bread, a golden popover served sliced open with a dollop of whipped, dill-infused butter melting into the airy pockets of dough (also served as the base for an order of steak tartare). It’s chewy and crunchy, and like a soufflé, it is best devoured still steaming, within seconds of its appearance at your table.
The wait staff at Saddle Rock are smartly trousered and tailored and look like they should all 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. Our server, Julia, describes the historic relevance of the hangtown fry’s ingredients (the omelet was created to showcase the most decadent ingredients available at the time: oysters, bacon, goat cheese and eggs).
Julia recommends the Wellington, a re-imagining of the classic in which the puff pastry encloses a rich shortrib stew with a hint of star anise (a nod to the culinary influence of the Chinese immigrant population), accompanied by not quite enough of a rich chasseur-like sauce and a nicely poached egg. Another entrée, the cioppino, tastes of the ocean, and while the swordfish, crayfish, oysters and clams are all perfectly cooked, the dish is almost too nakedly beachy, and could use some aromatic layering—maybe a spritz of that roasted lemon.
On this first day of business, the scene is more about the bar than the restaurant. The extended patio is made for happy hours and late summer nights, and the groupings of low-slung sofas in the bar make this place feel more like a lounge with a restaurant than a restaurant with a bar.
The nicely curated cocktail menu will ensure that it stays that way, with drink descriptions that include crafty ingredients like absinthe, pink peppercorns and kaffir lime leaves. As a nod to the Gold Rush, variations on the Ramos Gin Fizz, all priced at $4, look quaffable for summer, and a short but enticing $3 mocktail menu includes such delights as a fennel mule made with ginger beer and served in a paprika-rimmed glass. On the adult side, the Dirty Means—a bourbon infused with Thai chilis, peanut shells and food-grade leather (yes, leather)—may sound desperately hip, but proves to be a surprisingly smooth drink that tastes like a classic cocktail—and if the new Saddle Rock sticks around as long as the old one did, it may well become one.