Sacramento, US. A new food destination?

At the end of January this year, I took a trip to Sacramento in North California as I had a commission from Olive Magazine to investigate this very foodie town.  Olive published the feature online which can be seen here.  Below is my original unedited text:

I'm drinking a Bloody Mary inside an old converted garage in midtown Sacramento with owner of Preservation & Co, Jason Poole. Having only checked into the Citizen Hotel downtown an hour ago, I wasn't expecting such a rapid foodie onslaught but Jason's a snappy character, full of energy so I do my best to keep up as he opens jars of preserved vegetables to garnish my drink. Who knew a Cayenne Carrot stick would go so well with an alcoholic drink? He's just taken a delivery of pressed tomatoes from a local Californian company, from the field to his store in 4 days, ready to add to the next batch of his infamous Bloody Mary mix, hitting 30 bars in Sacramento and 700 more across the US. Jason is keen to show me some popular bars and life after dark which wasn't on my agenda but I roll with it, for all the best things are found when you hang with a local.  Jason doesn't just have one of the best examples of farm to fork businesses in town, he's also incredibly connected.  For the next few days as I eat my way through this 'farm to fork' city, a place where the mentality of the people is always farm based and a farmers market is normal, it seems everyone knows him.  And, I later realise, everyone in the food business here knows everyone else in the food business. It makes for a community that has food right at it's very heart.  

Leaving the preserves behind, I'm pleased to tuck into dinner at Hawks, a relatively new hip restaurant on Alhambra Blvd with an open bar and kitchen. The vibe is buzzing, the menu looks incredible and I dive right in.  I decide to try a few small plates that feature a few ingredients I've never heard of so I go for the Point Reyes Toma Cheese, a semi-hard buttery cheese that rubs along nicely with the lavender black pepper honey it's served with and the locally grown Coraline Chicory turned into a lighter version of a Caesar salad with crunchy breadcrumbs, bacon and parmesan all washed down with delicious Californian wine, of course. I didn't mean to go vegetarian but I was drawn in by the lure of freshly picked, locally grown vegetables. This place has impeccable service, knowledgable staff and it's packed out on a Wednesday night.

From here, it's a short Uber ride to Folsom Blvd to check out one of the hottest new and innovative openings in town, already working it's way to a Michelin star. Kru is a contemporary Japanese restaurant complete with a designated sushi bar and an enviable Japanese whisky selection.  With sake on the menu too, I continue the theme, taking advice from the head barman whose knowledge of Japanese drinks is astounding.  I eat sushi at the bar and indulge in huge, freshly flown-in scallops from Japan coated with foie gras, not the best example of farm to fork cuisine but rest assured the sushi rice is produced in Sacramento.  Ready to move on, the hot spots are The Shady Lady's on the Historic R Street for the best cocktails in town and B Side, the 'barman's bar' across the road both with a great evening vibe lasting long into the early hours.

The next morning calls for a coffee and nowhere does it better than Temple.  There are a few branches in Sacramento but the best one is at 22nd and K Street. Not only is it set in a gorgeously restored building, it's also at the cutting edge of coffee; its Japanese 'Kyoto' slow-drip is like something out of a chemistry class producing a complex finish cold-brew coffee after an 8 hour drip process. My favourite is the Nitro Cascara tea which contains less caffeine but produces a refreshingly fruity peach flavour. The 'Afogato' is essentially nitro coffee over gelato and is really popular. Their coffee is more than fair trade; it's purchased from Africa and Central South America direct from the farmer and brought based on cup quality. In keeping with Sacramento's foodie ethos, they roast their coffee just 5 blocks away, and not only do they supply the majority of Sacramento restaurants, they also supply most of California.

I can't resist ducking into Ginger Elizabeth's, the best place in town to buy chocolate. I break my 'no chocolate until 3pm rule' and get stuck into one of their incredible hot chocolates lightly scented with Rose and their Lavender Caramel chocolate 'Bon Bons'.  The chocolate here (only Valhrona) also has the farm to fork ethos; chocolate is flavoured with Del Rio botanicals from West Sacramento, the lemons from Ginger's backyard and strawberries are from Terra Firma, a community based farm in the Bay area; if in doubt, the labels tell you where everything's from. The flavours and textures are superbly smooth, the predominant flavour of chocolate followed by a delicate but punchy kiss of secondary flavour. Ginger herself worked as an executive pastry chef in restaurants all over America before opening Ginger Elizabeth's in 2007 with her husband Tom, ex chef at The French Laundry, and as one of the tasters, you can rest assured the flavours are out of this world.

Lunch is just over the road at Mulvany's, a well-known and respected eatery set in a former Firehouse, famous for it's double-cut brined pork chop.  Owner Patrick and his wife Bobbin are known throughout Sacramento, having been here for 26 years and one of the driving forces behind the farm to fork culture.  Over a delicious lunch of super light minestrone soup and meatballs with a garlicky homemade fettuccine, he tells me about his ingredients; "Everyday there's something new and cool and I get to sell it. It keeps me interested. A customer might call up with peaches from his gardens and my neighbour could bring lemons from her house.” The couple are so passionate about their home town, sustainable food, education and non-profit work, even running an International Mentoring Women's programme and various food events throughout the year. Staff have been with them for years and there's really a close-knit community feel to their restaurant. Mulvany's is THE history of food in Sacramento so it's a must.

Sacramento is easy to navigate so walking is the best way. I really enjoyed a saunter through the park at Capitol with its great variety of labelled trees and with citrus season in full swing, I was never far away from a juicy orange. Despite Sacramento's city status, it feels quite suburban.  Cute prairie style houses, reminiscent of the gold rush times, sit alongside quirky bars and restaurants; there's never a corner without something fun to see or try - none more so then Ruhstaller beer hidden downstairs in a speakeasy style bar, complete will doorbell. Owner, Jan-Erik Paino, is passionate about his beer and confirms my thoughts about Sacramento; “There's not a city mentality here, it's a slower way of life”. Sacramento was, once upon a time, the largest beer brewing and hop growing region in the world, but that sadly ended after WW2. Ruhstaller has a large, unusual space with a pool table and plenty of room to house the artistic nights they like to put on throughout the month. There are at least 8 beers on at any time so there's something to fit every palate but my go-to would be the Triple Crown, a beer featuring the blackberry grown alongside the hops. The terroir just outside the city gives their beer a different taste then other American States making for some unusual flavours.

The perfect follow on from a few pints is a pizza. Paving the way for a new breed of restaurant is The Federalist, a vibrant community feeling pizza restaurant housed in a shipping container.  The concept was thought up in 2014 by architect Malvin Maldonardo who lives next door in his Federalist house. He wanted to open up quickly, so using his knowledge, he built this cost-effectively and essentially by himself although the opening was supported by many of his fellow restaurateurs who helped kit him out with the produce and support he needed for a successful evening, once again showing how supportive Sacramento is. The Federalist is a triumph and a lot of fun where everyone sits on communal benches. I firmly place myself next to the pizza oven where his head chef speedily knocks up some Neapolitan style sourdough pizzas (it takes 3 days to produce the dough) with American style toppings whilst people play Bowles at the makeshift 'green' alongside the restaurant which makes for a totally relaxed atmosphere.  Beware the beer sizes though...they are huge.

No trip to Sacramento is complete without at least a day over in the old town, an original historical district dating back to the GoldRush era of 1848. Of course, should you wish to stay here then why not spend a few nights onboard the Delta King, a 285 ft riverboat. There are several museums, all worth a look at least just to get an understanding of the city but there are also a few interesting eateries and plenty of sweet shops. I loved the classic burgers at Ten 22. Wine enthusiasts should head to The Underground Tasting Room to sample some 'boutique' style wines without having to leave the city. There are two vineyards represented here, 'Rendezvous' whose vineyard is 20 miles South of Sacramento in Clarksburg and 'Twisted Twig', situated East into the foothills of the Sierra in El Dorado. Twisted Twig makes a limited amount of red wine, around 1000 cases a year but the wine is very good quality and is a great way to showcase what smaller vineyards can produce. The bar is situated on the original level of the Old Town (which is lower then it is now) and is a great pitstop to sample some very local wines, cool down in it's courtyard and soak up the atmosphere of this fascinating place.

The next morning, I went to see just how close farm to fork is for Sacramento, I take a short drive out of town to Soil Born Farm, a non-profit organisation home to 55 acres of certified organic farm. Behind this brilliant concept are two young organic farmers with no previous farming experience, just a strong conviction to give back to the community. In particular, their concern was to ensure vulnerable people could get easy access to healthy food, via donation to a Food Closet or the Sacramento Food Bank.Their vision for a farm and education centre is now in full-swing; starting from the root by educating children in their summer camps and teaching basic cooking. In May up until November there's a farm stand open every Saturday for people to buy vegetables. Chefs from Sacramento have supported them too; Malvin from Federalist has brought out his pizza oven numerous times for events they run on the farm.

Before I leave this brilliant foodie city, I check out the unassuming Kim's Vietnamese restaurant just a few doors down from the hotel that I've been keeping my eye on especially since I peeped through the window to see four Vietnamese ladies taking charge of the kitchen. It's brightly lit, and not entirely inviting but it's full of diners and many Vietnamese, which is a good sign. Needless to say, it's here I consume the best Beef Pho I've ever tasted. I leave Sacramento completely blown away by it's sense of community, the quality of the restaurants, cafes and bars and, of course, all the people I've met. Watch out New York and London, you have a new city to compete with.

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