At left is the grilled Delta asparagus dish at Mulvaney’s B&L. The dish’s ingredients can vary.
At left is the grilled Delta asparagus dish at Mulvaney’s B&L. The dish’s ingredients can vary.

Carla Meyer

The Sacramento Bee’s dining critic knows good taste

Carla Meyer

Dining review: Service, setting outshine food at Mulvaney’s in Sacramento

By Carla Meyer

cmeyer@sacbee.com

May 20, 2016 02:00 PM

At its best, Mulvaney’s B&L can be everything to everyone. Or to least those people who can afford it.

The midtown Sacramento restaurant, which turned 10 earlier this year, delivers impeccable yet unpretentious service and retains a roguish spirit amid its white tablecloths. It evokes restaurants in bigger cities as it emphasizes our local bounty.

As diners’ voices bounced off the walls and concrete floors of the 1893 brick former firehouse that holds Mulvaney’s one night last month, bartender Dan Mitchell exchanged good-natured barbs with regulars across the bar. The vibe brought to mind those of high-end but slightly rowdy steakhouses and Italian restaurants one finds in Chicago but rarely here.

On a different night, we sat on the far quieter, off-street patio, where strings of tiny lights wrapped around trees gave off a Greenwich Village glow suggestive of restaurant proprietor Patrick Mulvaney’s New York roots.

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Except Chicago and New York restaurants don’t usually serve asparagus from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, cooked to a perfectly slight crunch and participant in a textural wonderland that includes a creamy sunny-side-up egg, frisée and house-cured lomo. Or Tolenas quail from Fairfield, wrapped in house bacon and caught in a richness fight with creamy potato mousseline, with the diner emerging the victor. Or a potato chip holding Sloughhouse’s Passmore Ranch caviar, its saltiness perfectly offset by crème fraîche.

Maybe some of those places do serve ingredients from Northern California. But they likely are not as fresh as they are at Mulvaney’s, whose proprietor is the unofficial dean of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement.

In the past decade, Sacramento has come around to locavore eating, which Mulvaney championed from the moment his restaurant – the menu for which changes daily, based on what’s in season and available – opened in 2006. When Sacramento inaugurated its official farm-to-fork movement in 2013, Mulvaney and Randall Selland (The Kitchen, Ella Dining Room & Bar) spearheaded the Tower Bridge dinner. In 2014, Mulvaney took Sacramento’s local and seasonal ethos to New York, where he had received a prestigious invitation to cook a special dinner at the James Beard House.

On Monday, Mulvaney will head to Washington, D.C., to stump for less food waste and better nutrition in school lunches.

He has become so closely entwined with progressive food causes, and he and his wife and restaurant partner, Bobbin Mulvaney, so known for their philanthropic efforts, that one almost hesitates to provide the fuller picture of the four recent visits we made to Mulvaney’s to revisit its status in the Sacramento dining scene. Because for as many exquisite flavors as the kitchen produced during those meals, there were nearly as many flawed dishes.

But given that Mulvaney is still a businessman who charges $44 for a 14-ounce rib-eye, and $10 apiece for those caviar-laden chips, rather than giving his food away, we will soldier on.

We tried swordfish that was watery and halibut that was overly salty. We tried Irish brown bread (served with an unremarkable smoked-salmon plate) and a manchego cheesecake that were bone-dry. A house-made pappardelle had just the right tenderness but was also virtually flavorless, arriving at the table with two noodles stuck together from the cooking process. Fiddlehead ferns served with the pasta tasted overly grassy – like they were trailhead-to-fork, without a rest stop for blanching.

The restaurant’s once famously adventurous menu did not seem more daring than those at Ella, Grange or more recent arrivals in the Mulvaney’s price range, Empress Tavern and Localis, and repeated asparagus in too many dishes. But that might have been happenstance, since the menu changes daily. More recent menus have offered more intriguing possibilities, such as a shaved beef tongue salad, and more interesting accompaniments for proteins that seem to be Mulvaney’s staples, like that rib-eye, which comes from Niman Ranch and is aged 21 days.

When we had it, the rib-eye was cooked to a perfect medium rare and seasoned just enough to highlight its essential beefy flavor. But the accompaniments – a bread salad that was more like a crouton salad and a walnut chili butter that was pasty – disappointed. In the past few weeks, though, Mulvaney’s has offered grilled beets and chimichurri, and roasted potatoes and foie butter, with the steak.

The kitchen slip-ups we experienced can’t be tied directly, or at least not with any immediacy, to Mulvaney. Managing the business and his advocacy pursuits now consume more of his attention, and he estimated that he spends about 20 percent of his time in the kitchen. He sees himself, at age 55, as more of a teacher than the guy working the line.

This might seem like news, to those of us for whom the indelible image of Mulvaney’s is its proprietor in a white chef’s coat, but it really isn’t. The restaurant has employed executive chef Dan Moore for the past year and a half, Mulvaney said.

Nor does it represent any sort of crisis at what has become a Sacramento institution – even if calling anything 10 years old an institution is a stretch. But as Mulvaney pointed out, his restaurant got a head start in gaining Sacramentans’ affections because of the building’s beloved previous occupant, New Helvetia coffee house.

It’s not as if Mulvaney’s has dropped the ball and now serves fewer local or seasonal ingredients. The misfires we encountered were more matters of execution and quality control, which seem like temporary issues.

The other pillars of a fine restaurant, wonderful setting and great service, are standing at Mulvaney’s.

The exceptional service began with a lunch visit during which our server happily (and without charging extra) split all our dishes in half, including a soup served in small individual bowls, so we could share everything.

It continued during a solo visit to the bar area, where bartender Mitchell steered me away from the house specialty whiskey cocktail I had ordered and toward a Boulevardier, with Michter’s American whiskey and Campari. I am not sure why he did this, but I went with it, and liked the Boulevardier’s mix of slight sweetness and bite so much I ordered it on another visit.

He later dissuaded me from ordering a pasta, urging me to try the giant, two-bone pork chop instead. The pork was a little dry toward its edges but delicious close to the bones, which Mitchell cut apart for me at my table.

I appreciate bossy bartenders, of whom I have met a few, because it means guaranteed engagement during a solo restaurant visit. But the charismatic Mitchell stands out from his fellow assertive drink master/conversationalists. He can “read the room,” offering just enough banter to make shyer guests feel like part of the action while simultaneously sparring with regulars in long-running teasing sessions not entirely free of swear words. He ends the meal by offering cookies baked by his wife.

Also exceptional was server Sarah Jean Fuller, who helped us on a few visits, including one in which she apparently was being shadowed by a new server yet never missed a beat.

Among his goals when he opened the restaurant, Mulvaney said, was providing a place where people could gather to discuss issues of the day.

Each night we visited, Mulvaney’s “Next Door” event space was packed with women and men wearing suits and looking highly legislative. (Mulvaney said he books a lot of political events, but that being five blocks from the Capitol instead of up against it leads to more-relaxed affairs that are more about discussion than quick deal-making).

This crowd spilled into the restaurant one night, when I overheard a party near me discussing high-level state officials. They spoke with such apparent inside knowledge and cocktail-lubricated candor that I leaned in so far toward them I nearly fell off my bar stool. I usually find state politics as juicy as Irish brown bread, but this conversation entertained. And voices carry in the relatively small Mulvaney’s dining room, so I wasn’t eavesdropping so much as just being.

Although politicos also crowd restaurants closer to the Capitol, such as Ella and Chops, those places do not exude the same warmth as Mulvaney’s. Nor do Empress or Sacramento’s most recent entry in the fine-yet-fun-dining stakes, Hawks Public House. Those two places serve consistently better food than Mulvaney’s does but lack its sense of intimacy, which is present even at its noisiest moments.

A great mystery of restaurants is how some are invitingly loud and others just loud. Mulvaney’s obviously cracked the code. Maybe it took seven, eight or 10 years to crack it, but it’s cracked, because the infectiously lively atmosphere persisted through our visits, even when the food faltered.

If a 3-month-old restaurant showed the same service quality and inviting setting Mulvaney’s does, but its food was uneven, I would call it highly promising. Given how well so many aspects of Mulvaney’s hold up 10 years in – a true feat, in the topsy-turvy restaurant world – one cannot call it anything but highly accomplished.

Mulvaney’s B&L

1215 19th St., Sacramento, www.mulvaneysbl.com, 916-441-6022

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Beverage options: Extensive, California-centric list of wines available by the bottle, half-bottle and glass. Draft and bottled beers. Rotating house-made soda.

Vegetarian friendly: Not especially, though there are options

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise levels: Loud inside; quieter on the patio

Ambiance: This 10-year-old midtown Sacramento restaurant offers two distinct, equally inviting settings: a boisterous dining room within a 1893 brick former firehouse, and a more intimate patio beside. Both feel like places one might find in a larger city.

Overall

Mulvaney’s offers excellent service, a lovely setting and a continued emphasis on the local, seasonal ingredients. The food was inconsistent on our visits, but that might be a temporary issue.

Food  1/2

A potato chip “spoon” of Passmore Ranch caviar was exquisite, and quail wrapped in house bacon and served with a creamy potato mousseline redefined “rich.” The Black Forest semifreddo dessert was not too sweet and held a crunchy layer that offered welcome textural variance. But the restaurant’s Irish brown bread, manchego cheesecake and pork sandwich were too dry and its halibut and swordfish too salty and watery, respectively.

Service

The service was flawless, but especially good at the bar, where charismatic bartender Dan Mitchell made a solo diner feel like part of the party.

Value  1/2

Mulvaney’s prices are high yet not outrageous. But where one finds value tends to be in direct proportion to where one finds flavor. The tasty quail with potato mousseline seemed reasonable at $34, but the watery swordfish, at $33, did not.