December 7, 2021

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Sacramento’s high-end restaurants innovate with cooking lessons, meal boxes

Haute cuisine doesn’t usually come in a to-go box. But when dining rooms closed due to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home directive, fine dining restaurants like Localis faced a dilemma.

Localis is an upscale restaurant with a Michelin Plate designation. A meal isn’t just about food. It’s an experience, served over multiple courses in a tasting menu format.

“We were so lost when we had to close the doors,” said Christopher Barnum-Dann, Localis’ owner and executive chef. “We didn’t even know what to do.”

Barnum-Dann decided not to shift his business model to more casual fare. He decided there were already enough burger, pizza and fried chicken joints.

Plus, it just wasn’t his brand. “I love the idea of a story being told with food,” said Barnum-Dann.

At the same time, though, the restaurant had to survive. “This illusion that we’re one-percenters along with our clientele is kind of silly,” said Barnum-Dann. “Our family doesn’t have a place to live if this restaurant goes down.”

Localis, like a few other higher-end Sacramento restaurants, decided to try takeout. It was a radical change for places known for serving leisurely meals, with multiple courses, at linen-covered tables.

Serving multiple courses as a to-go meal presents a unique set of challenges. Some items travel better than others. Foods have to maintain their temperatures, and menus must be planned accordingly.

Barnum reduced the number of courses and increased the portion sizes. Options now include a three-course menu for $50 ($85 with wine pairings) and a four-course menu for $64 ($109 with wine pairings).

During the stay-at-home directive, the tasting menu will be changing every two weeks (usually it changes once a month). The theme of the current tasting menu (April 16-29) is happy memories.

The meal starts out without an “amuse-bouche” (literally, “mouth amuser”): fried heirloom potatoes and quail egg, with preserved duck egg yolk shaved over the top. The amuse-bouche is essentially an hors d’oeuvre — a single bite. It doesn’t count as one of the courses.

The first course is an Indian fish crudo, an homage to Indian food and raw fish. Next is a green garlic risotto (only included with the four-course tasting menu option). The garlic is one of Barnum-Dann’s favorite springtime ingredients. The risotto is a fun way to highlight the flavor.

Next is quail, marinated in a jerk rub, stuffed with cornbread and ginger, and served on a black bean purée. This course is called, “You Better Belize It,” and it’s based on an actual meal Barnum-Dann had during a trip to Belize. The ambiance was terrible — the restaurant was a hut with a dirt floor. He was mauled by mosquitoes. They didn’t serve beer, so he had to buy his own from a nearby convenience store.

But what a great dinner. “Literally one of the best meals of my life,” remembered Barnum-Dann. “I’ve had meals which cost me upwards of $1,000. … This was $7.”

The meal concludes with chocolate brioche donuts stuffed with kiwi curd, chocolate and green cardamom ice cream, topped with salted caramel.

If that isn’t enough, Barnum-Dann has a few other ideas to keep the customers interested. “Cook with Localis” is a program is expected to launch soon. Localis preps the meal, the customer brings it home and then tunes into a YouTube channel to see how to put it together.

“We’re going to do videos where I finish cooking all of the stuff that you get in your box and plate it in front of everyone,” said Barnum-Dann.

Allora focuses on comfort food

At Allora, the new focus is on comfort and value, says Chef Deneb Williams. Allora is an upscale Italian restaurant owned by Williams and his wife, Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, an advanced sommelier.

In better times, the restaurant specialized in fresh seafood and five- and seven-course tasting menus. It earned 3 1/2 stars from Bee reviewer Kate Washington in 2018.

But some of the old menu items just don’t travel well as takeout. The ahi tuna has been furloughed, along with the fresh oysters.

The new curbside menu includes a selection of pastas and fresh salads. Wine and cocktails are still available for takeout, and the phones are being answered by certified sommeliers to assist with wine pairings.

Allora also has a popular new item, a take-and-bake lasagna, family-style. Options include a classic bolognese lasagna ($55) and a Dungeness crab lasagna ($65). The meal comes with salad, bread, and dessert.

Canon’s prix fixe meal boxes

In 2019, Canon made it into the Michelin Guide with a bib gourmand, signifying good food at an affordable price. It’s also the only restaurant to earn a four-star review from Kate Washington in her work for The Bee.

“All of our cuisine is shareable,” said owner Clay Nutting. “That tends to help with the price point.”

The Canon ethos is all about personal relationships, conversations — friends breaking bread together. In short, it’s an epidemiologist’s nightmare.

But adaptations have been made. “There are definitely some things that we’ve done to format our menu to be a little more in line with how people are dining right now,” said Nutting.

The new curbside menu features a list of “prix fixe meal boxes” ranging from $25 for the grilled artichoke to $45 for the prime ribeye steak.

“You’re still getting what we would consider to be Canon-caliber cuisine. We’ve adjusted the prices down a bit because you’re not experiencing it in-house.”

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