East Sac favorite moves, taking along its excellent menu
By Greg Sabin
Four years ago, Aimal Formoli and his wife Suzanne opened up a petite bistro on J Street to rave reviews. Their tiny storefront, which formerly housed an attorney, acupuncturist and coffee shop (by the way, the attorney, acupuncturist and coffee shop owner were not, as one might assume, three separate tenants, but rather one tenant with, apparently, rather diverse interests), soon became too small for the appreciative crowds that filled it night after night.
Luckily for the Fomolis, another J Street restaurant, Gönül’s J Street Cafe, was looking to downsize. This led to an almost unheard of East Sacramento restaurant swap. Gönül’s moved to the smaller space at J and 33rd (now known as Vanilla Bean Bistro) while Formoli’s Bistro upsized to the space at J and 39th. From all appearances, the swap is working out well for both parties.
I wrote a review of Formoli’s back in ’08, when its cozy confines were home to some great food and fantastic vibes. The question is, has the move changed the formerly tiny bistro?
When it comes to the food, change, thankfully, is not in the air. Many of the same menu favorites can be found at Formoli’s new digs, including the fantastic (and still optimistically priced) stuffed dates and endive ($12). The recipe has changed little over the years, the dates lightly fried and stuffed with goat cheese and pancetta, beautifully perched on ruby-hued endive from Rio Vista.
Also a holdover from the early days is the whiskey burger ($13), which has won its share of local awards. A rare and rarified patty soaked with an indulgent and high-proof sauce, topped with a significant plank of cheddar, it’s a burger worth the trip alone.
A menu item new to me is the mussels and fries ($14). Dressed up a bit from their Belgian pub roots, the mussels are soaked liberally with chorizo broth and topped with tarragon cream. The hand-cut fries (frites if you’re feeling fancy) are professionally executed and perfect when dunked in the mussels’ spicy broth.
Another new addition is cassoulet ($18). The nearly prehistoric French favorite of fowl, pork and beans is handled deftly with some modern touches. A world-class frying job is done on a chicken quarter, then a gorgeous braise on a pork belly, then a spot-on al dente job on some white beans. The trio gets a little kick from some chorizo, then hits the plate. It’s as good a winter-weather dish as one could find anywhere.
The pan-seared scallops ($17) have been on the menu for a while, but they get a nice seasonal touch with the addition of Apple Hill apples and house-made bacon. The buttery scallops sing with the smoky bacon and sweet apples. They’re also a perfect main when paired with the parsnip and persimmon salad ($9), one of the finest seasonal treats of the, well, season. A mound of baby arugula, marinated persimmon slices and fried parsnip all get tossed in a light vinaigrette and make for a fine, fine treat.
So the skill in the kitchen hasn’t waned at Formoli’s, and neither has the service, which is attentive yet leisurely. Prices remain (mostly) reasonable, with only one dish cresting the $20 peak. And for food of this quality, prepared with this amount of skill, that’s more than reasonable.
Honestly, the only thing that got lost in the move down J Street is the coziness. The low ceiling, low lighting and low profile of Formoli’s have changed a bit with the relocation. The new spot up the street lacks the warmth of the former space. And despite efforts to jazz the place up a bit with an eclectic world décor and a few anachronistic items hung from the rafters, it’s not an inviting room.
This is not to say that the staff and food and every other thing about the place isn’t inviting. Quite the opposite. It just feels less homey and more like a storefront in a strip mall than a convivial East Sac haunt.
To combat the lack of hominess, I suggest ordering a dish of bread pudding ($8). Bread pudding is where I live, and Formoli’s bread pudding puts me right at home. Not too dense, not too soggy, not even too sweet, the hefty ramekin of hearty bread and persimmon makes for a perfect end to an evening, no matter which block of J Street you eat it on.
Formoli’s Bistro is at 3839 J Street; 448-5699; formolis.com.