April 14, 2024

Best restaurant meals I ate around Sacramento in February

At some points in February, I wanted rich, romantic meals at a time-tested Sacramento-area institution. Other days, I just wanted shelter from the storm.

These were my favorite meals that I, The Sacramento Bee’s food and beverage reporter, ate at local restaurants around the region in February.

All reviews were first published in my free weekly food and drink newsletter, which hits inboxes at noon each Wednesday. Visit https://bit.ly/bee_food_drink_newsletter to sign up.

Aioli Bodega Española

Aziz Bellarbi-Salah, owner of Aïoli Bodega Española on L Street, prepares an outdoor seating area Friday, May 22, 2020, in Sacramento. Sacramento County’s updated Stage 2 coronavirus guidelines allowed restaurants to open Friday for inside and outside dining, with some restrictions. Xavier Mascareñas/[email protected]

Midtown is Sacramento’s hub for cutting-edge culinary innovation, yet still hosts a few restaurants that straddle modernity while taking inspiration from yesteryear. Aioli Bodega Española is one such concept, an art deco restaurant in the Handle District with many longtime fans.

Founded by Reda Bellarbi in 1994 and run today by his son Aziz Bellarbi-Salah, the man behind Brasserie du Monde and The Grand cocktail bar, Aioli looks out on the corner of 18th and L streets through nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. A beautiful garden patio is in hibernation for the winter, leaving customers to ogle metallic art pieces of goats and naval explorers inside.

The menu ranges from tapas to two-person paella pans, which take up to 45 minutes to prepare and should be ordered first. While it’s cooking, share a plate of pechuga de pato ($18), deliciously rich slices of braised and seared duck breast served in a fennel-sherry sauce with Swiss chard.

Aioli has six housemade pastas, including the slippery casarecce a la Siciliana ($21), short twists of dough tossed in a nutty mint-pecorino-pistachio sauce. Main dishes are typically meaty and heavy; paillard de pollo ($23), sheets of citrus-marinated grilled chicken breast pounded flat and laid around papas bravas, qualified as relatively light fare.

Finally, the main event. The paella Barceloneta ($60) was an eye-catching platter of cuttlefish, whole shrimp and scallops swimming in arborio rice dyed black by squid’s ink. All seafood was nicely tender, and there was a crunchy soccarat (crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pan), but the dish’s connection to the sea seemed to unfortunately extend to salt content as well.

Address: 1800 L St., Sacramento.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3-10 p.m. Sunday.

Phone: (916) 447-9440

Website: https://aiolibodega.com/

Drinks: Full bar with an extensive wine selection. The cinnamon-forward sangria is a specialty.

Vegetarian options: A few, including two paellas.

Noise level: Loud.

Saigon Oi

The bánh mì chảo at Saigon Oi is spiced red pâté, filet mignon chunks, poached eggs, a meatball and grape tomatoes swimming in a skillet amid a super-savory sauce, with an airy baguette on the side to dip scoop up excess juice. Benjy Egel/begel@sacbee.com

The bánh mì chảo at Saigon Oi is spiced red pâté, filet mignon chunks, poached eggs, a meatball and grape tomatoes swimming in a skillet amid a super-savory sauce, with an airy baguette on the side to dip scoop up excess juice. Benjy Egel/[email protected]

Southeast Asia has monsoon season; Sacramento had the 60 MPH gusts and sporadic rainfall that whipped the region in February. I braved the elements for a bowl of noodle soup at Saigon Oi, Hung Kieu’s Vietnamese restaurant that opened in a Little Saigon shopping center in 2021.

Faux green shutters decorate some of Saigon Oi’s walls, showcasing illustrations of the historic, sprawling Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Another wall bears faux brick and a neon sign with the restaurant’s name, and others have the fake foliage made for Instagram shots (real potted plants line the floor, too).

It’s a restaurant for the 2020s that pays homage to Vietnamese comfort foods. Take the bánh mì chảo ($19), a skillet of filet mignon, pork roll, meatball and a mound of pâté swimming in a sweet-savory sauce with a fried egg peeking skyward. Typically eaten for breakfast (Saigon Oi opens at 9 a.m. daily), it’s served with an airy baguette that delivers an ASMR-worthy crunch with a gentle squeeze.

You’re more likely to find bánh khọt ($16) in Sacramento’s Vietnamese American households than its restaurants, so try the savory miniature pancakes topped with shrimp while you have the chance. Served sizzling in their skillet, the small cup-like pancakes are chewy with a thin crispy exterior, the result of rice flour used in baking.

Saigon Oi doesn’t make pho, but offered bún bò Huế ($18) as a soul-warming special given the outdoor elements. A noodle soup stocked with thinly-sliced steak, meatballs and coagulated pork blood, it tasted woodsier and less spicy than some other Little Saigon renditions.

Address: 6835 Stockton Blvd., Suite 450, Sacramento.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Tuesday, closed Wednesday.

Phone: (916) 594-7757

Website: https://www.saigonoisac.com/

Drinks: Vietnamese coffee, dessert drinks known as chè, tea, and soda.

Vegetarian options: No mains. Appetizers include egg rolls and sweet potato fries.

Noise level: Medium-loud.

Visconti’s Ristorante

Visconti’s Ristorante in Folsom makes rich Italian dishes such as the veal Visconti. Benjy Egel/begel@sacbee.com

Visconti’s Ristorante in Folsom makes rich Italian dishes such as the veal Visconti. Benjy Egel/[email protected]

A Folsom favorite since 1992, Visconti’s Ristorante leans on classic charm with its faux marble walls, classical music, framed paintings and recipes from the Visconti family’s days in Calabria and Sicily. The pasta house and pizzeria sits just down the road from Folsom Lake College, while extended family member Frank Gianni Jr. owns Papa Gianni’s Ristorante in Cameron Park.

Some longtime suburban restaurants merely endure, while others weave themselves into the fabric of the town. Visconti’s falls into the latter group, a special occasion spot with a homey feel that collaborated on a house pilsner with Folsom-based Red Bus Brewing and gets its beans from Vaneli’s Handcrafted Coffee in Rocklin.

Veal Visconti ($30) is a house specialty, a decadent amalgamation of breaded calf meat, ham and mushrooms covered in a creamy white sauce and marinara, smothered with mozzarella cheese and baked until gooey. Served with spaghetti, Visconti’s famous garlic bread and minestrone soup or a simple salad (a mustardy Italian dressing goes well over greens), the veal’s delicate flavor still somehow managed to seep through.

The lobster ravioli ($32 with garlic bread and soup or salad) was similarly rich, but less overwhelming. Maine lobster was ground to a velvety texture, tucked into pasta and cooked to just the right amount of doneness, then covered in a tomato cream sauce dotted with roasted garlic cloves.

Visconti’s expansive menu touches briefly on pizza, with a meat combo ($16-$28) pie as stacked as any around. A butcher’s medley of pepperoni, salami, sausage, linguiça, beef crumbles, ham and Canadian bacon piled in sheets on my medium-thick crust (thin is also an option) that turned soft in the middle but held its crunch at the edges.

Address: 2700 E. Bidwell St., Suite 700, Folsom.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.

Phone: (916) 983-5181

Website: https://www.viscontisristorante.com/

Drinks: Full bar, with specialties such as the Sicilian Kiss cocktail (bourbon, amaretto and peach schnapps).

Vegetarian options: Several, including eggplant parmigiana, and spaghetti tossed with raw tomatoes, herbs and olive oil.

Noise level: Medium-quiet.