The story of Localis is one of great food and “if only … ”
That phrase could start several sentences that go like this: “If only (insert critic’s small wish), I could give Localis four stars.”
Chef and co-owner Christopher Barnum’s dishes are so thoughtful that less-thoughtful aspects of Localis, which sits in the space at S and 21st streets in Sacramento that once held Tuli Bistro and Trick Pony, seem like a real shame.
Especially the ones that would be so easy to fix, like the bouncily insistent, irritating reggae music constantly on the sound system.
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A recent dinner visit to Localis entailed the best meal I have had in ages and my finally hitting a wall with the reggae, an incongruously beers-in-the-park, bro-down accompaniment to a fine-dining meal.
But the frustration level was telling. The instinct to want to improve a place instead of just report on it – when I momentarily turn restaurant consultant in my mind – only arises when the place shows signs of being truly special. Otherwise, I could shrug off the music as another disappointment.
But Barnum, a Placer County native who previously worked at Roseville’s Cibo 7 and has not headed up a Sacramento restaurant until now, has freshened the midtown dining scene in several ways.
He’s a chef without swagger, seemingly lacking that need, exhibited by other chefs, to construct a cult around himself. When Barnum presents dishes from Localis’ tasting menu to diners, he exudes the air of someone who genuinely hopes you’ll be pleased with what he’s offering.
(The sincere thing actually is a good cult-building technique, since Barnum now can count me as a devotee.)
Barnum has partnered with the Broderick Roadhouse empire-building team led by Chris Jarosz and Matt Chong in Localis, which in name and deed focuses on local ingredients. Regular purveyors include Azolla Farm, in Pleasant Grove, and Laughing Duck Farm, in Newcastle. Kathryn MacRoberts of Laughing Duck manages the herb planters around Localis, from which Barnum plucks ingredients nightly.
Maybe it’s the name’s power of suggestion, but the produce that goes into Localis’ dishes tastes about 15 percent fresher than its counterparts at other restaurants.
I’ve tried so much game at Localis during its four months in business that I expected my skin to erupt into camouflage. And although all of it was good, none stands out as much as the deceptively simple “farm plate” crudité dinner starter.
Ingredients vary, but on our visits, the farm plate contained turnip, radish, apple, pomegranate seeds and a few types of carrot and beet. Variations in texture and crunch levels, and pickling elements (including a rice vinegar-forward mix and one with red-wine vinegar and peppercorn) individuate the vegetables and fruits to such a degree that each bite differs from the next.
With this dish and others, Barnum carefully balances sweetness, salt, brightness and acidity for ultimate palate pleasure. The only element missing, out of many Barnum creations we tried, was heat. But heat is easy. The balances Barnum achieves are hard. And his flavors work altogether or in pairs.
The rabbit tagliatelle dinner entree comes with carrot purée around the plate’s edges that expertly cuts the acid and fat from the dish’s pancetta-and-chard greens component. And that’s just a tasty sidelight, before you dig into the house-made pasta, which remains satisfyingly al dente after soaking up the sweet-salty carrot cream sauce that holds braising juice from the tender rabbit.
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The pork belly on the $77, five-course tasting menu becomes a delectable bonanza of fat when combined with its foie gras topping. But dipping a piece of the pork in the sweet balsamic glaze on the side offsets the richness and adds brightness and sweetness.
Pickled mustard seeds add acidity and salt to the excellent “pastrami sandwich” on the tasting menu. As the quotations indicate, it’s not a sandwich but tender pieces of brined and smoked beef tongue served with a grainy mustard hollandaise that contains just enough bite within its creamy texture.
Barnum’s deconstructive bent also succeeds with the tasting menu’s “pumpkin spice latte” dessert. The plate holds pumpkin cheesecake, roasted pumpkin seeds, coffee crème anglaise and housemade snickerdoodle with hints of citrus that lighten the rich taste. I am disinclined toward pumpkin desserts or pumpkin anything, but this dessert won me over. But all Barnum’s desserts are winners.
The scoop of geranium sorbet that comes with the tasting menu (actually eight courses when factoring in dessert) cleanses the palate as intended but also embodies “refreshment” in a single bite.
The only true disappointment, out of the 20 or so Barnum creations we sampled, was the chorizo and squash risotto, on the dinner menu. Slightly undercooked risotto and cubes of squash create an odd textural mix in a dish whose chorizo component is hard to discern.
Barnum’s ingenuity turns the “steak and potatoes” dinner entree – on the surface the least daring item on the dinner, lunch or tasting menus – into something noteworthy and exciting.
He thinly slices wagyu culotte, then wraps and ties it before adding a spice rub. It is seared in a pan and finished in Localis’ wood-fired oven. The meat’s shape resembles a cinnamon roll. As you unwrap it, the beef, tender throughout, becomes rarer and more flavorful. The startlingly herbaceous chimichurri (that 15 percent again) illuminates the flavor of the steak and the crispy-outside, creamy-inside “smashed” potatoes.
Barnum gladly revealed preparation details of every dish I asked about except the fire-roasted octopus appetizer, which Barnum deemed a “trade secret.” You can see why he holds this secret closely: The octopus is shockingly tender.
Localis began serving lunch only a few weeks ago, so it’s too early to judge those dishes. But I have tried enough of them to recommend that people who are curious about Localis but haven’t been there might want to start with lunch. The flavors already are there, and the prices – most salads and entrees are $13 or less – lower than dinner, when entrees run $25 plus.
Also, it’s more comfortable to sit on the patio, in November, when the sun’s out. Seating at Localis, which is confined to a small bar area and a patio that’s only partially enclosed, is another of those “if only” elements.
Despite the overhead heaters, there’s no avoiding the chill on the patio at night. The owners plan to enclose the remainder of the patio very soon.
In the meantime, there is no seat at Localis, apart from the bar seating directly facing the cooking area, that does not involve some level of discomfort. The few tables inside the bar area seem wedged in.
This space inevitably influences one’s perception of Localis’ prices. For instance, Barnum’s food is as good or better than what’s served at Ella. But because Ella is so much nicer and more comfortable, a $35 dish at Ella seems more reasonable than a $28 dish at Localis. This is unfair, because Barnum uses top-tier ingredients. But it does not make it less true.
Nevertheless, Localis is a revelation despite its problematic setting. Because it has introduced Sacramento to Barnum, a talent I would follow anywhere (the cult thing again). Like to a (fingers crossed) new Localis in a different location.
2031 S St., Sacramento, 916-737-7699, www.localissacramento.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Beverage options: Northern California-centric, extensive wine list runs from sparkling to dessert options. Draft beers include New Helvetia and Sudwerk offerings.
Vegetarian friendly: Not exceptionally so, but the “farm plate” is one of the restaurant’s best offerings, and chef Chris Barnum said there always are three vegetable entrees available at dinner, even though they’re not on the printed menu.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Low to moderate
Ambiance: The bar, where one can watch Barnum and his crack crew prepare food, is a great place to sit. But the semi-open patio holds a chill despite heaters. Reggae music on the sound system is tiresome.
Barnum is a true talent, but seating in Localis, apart from that at the bar, offers degrees of discomfort.
Barnum’s flavor combinations are thoughtful and highly complementary. His “steak and potatoes” dinner entree and “pastrami sandwich” portion of the tasting menu rank with the best dishes in town. Barnum’s desserts are also knockouts.
Servers are highly attentive, and knowledgeable about the menu and potential wine pairings. But on one visit, our server went missing, forcing us to wait for an extended period before we could settle the bill.
Though $77 sounds like a lot to shell out for any individual meal, the five-course tasting menu is worth it. It actually contains eight items, counting small bites, and all of them are good. Dinner entree prices, at $25 plus, seem a bit expensive given the problematic setting, but that’s more perception than reality, considering the high-quality, expensive ingredients Barnum uses. Lunch prices are reasonable.