Dining at The Kitchen, a Michelin star restaurant in Sacramento
We know dinner shows are all the rage, but who needs dinner AND a show when dinner IS the show. At The Kitchen in Sacramento, Calif., which gained the city’s first Michelin star in June 2019, the chefs, servers, wine and ingredients all work together to put on a culinary performance that will keep you coming back, time and again – we promise. With one seating nightly, only 63 or so seats, and a restaurant that is fully booked sometimes months in advance, we jumped on a last-minute cancellation to experience executive chef Kelly McCown and his team put on the culinary ritz with a menu that had our mouths watering in anticipation.
We always thought the restaurant deserved a Michelin ranking with its elegant and entertaining perfection, so we were more than pleased to see it among the 27 newcomers to Michelin in California, raising the Michelin-starred eateries in the state to 69.
The Kitchen, part of the very successful Selland family of restaurants in Sacramento, was opened in 1991 by Randall Selland and his family. The concept then was simple: Offer a three-course meal, that was farm-to-fork in nature, and allow guests to hang out with the chef, in his kitchen – quite literally. Back then, there were 20 or seats in a very small venue. The idea caught on quickly, as diners loved the idea of being able to watch and experience their meal being prepared right in front of them. Walking around “the kitchen” and interacting with the chef is almost as if you were in the chef’s personal kitchen for a private dinner – which with 20 seats it nearly was then. The added attraction was Selland himself, who was both executive chef and flamboyant entertainer, tossing out one-liners while he cooked that would made some guests cringe or roll their eyes, according to reviews, but they almost universally wanted more.
Sometimes eye rolls, always funny and entertaining
We first experienced The Kitchen in 2010, by then under the direction of the inimitable executive chef Noah Zonca, who started his path to greatness as a dishwasher with the Selland restaurants then working his up to become the chef-entertainer at The Kitchen. Therese and I were immediately hooked, by the food, the wine, the experience of walking through the kitchen while each dish was being prepared, and of course, Noah’s schtick. We went back one more time, in 2012, and were equally enamored. Fast forward to November 2018. Our first foray back since Zonca had left The Kitchen to go his own way, and it had gone through a few chef changes – with a few rough spots and Selland even stepping back in for a time. Reviews indicated the restaurant had gotten 100 percent back on its feet with McCown – not that it ever wasn’t, but entertainment and a schtick were vital to success here. We were eager to see if this was the five-star restaurant and dinner performance we remembered.
The dinner concept is unique and decidedly special. Think of the dining room as a sort of intimate stage with seating for around 63 people, where couples usually end up along the counter at the kitchen’s edge. The five-course prix fixe menu is laid out with “acts” (think dinner show again) in an edible play where the servers and chefs are the performers. There is only one seating with the dinner performance beginning when the doors open at 7 p.m. as you stroll around “backstage” watching preparations and partaking in a few snacks. There is an intermission that is interactive in nature (of course) and more food is served – no breaks here from the eat, eat, eat. The experience takes up to 4 hours and, we promise you, the time flies.
Get there on time – no late seating!
We arrived just before 7 p.m. and the armed security guard (a nod perhaps to the neighborhood with a few ups and downs) greeted us with a smile, a kind word for our dog (who was going to sleep this one out in the truck) and pointed us to an available parking spot. We wandered through the door, and were immediately transported from a plain neighborhood in Sacramento sprawl to a glittering five-star dining experience. Our reservations were for the seats at the counter (which is where the real action happens, trust us), right in front of the stove. Our server welcomed us by name, brought champagne, and encouraged us to get up and walk around the kitchen, the wine cellar, anywhere we wanted, open doors, open drawers, make yourself at home.
In the back room, behind the dining room and where a lot of the food preparation was going on still, there were small bowls of nibbles, including fried olives and plates of fresh bread. Chefs were busily working on food that would be served later in the evening, eager to answer any question, or interact with any guest.
Once we returned to our seats, the server again appeared and took our wine order – we opted for sharing a half-serving each of the house and reserve wine pairing. Each part of the dinner service has been paired by the sommelier rather splendidly.
Time for the big show
And then it was time for Kelly McCown – who literally flounces into mid-kitchen with a loud voice, tons of flare, and a few cracks to welcome all of us to his show. It quickly became apparent McCown was equal parts comedian, chef and emcee for the night. He ran through the menu, introduced all of his staff – quips about each they have all likely heard many times — and had both of us laughing quite hard. His message was very clear: We were guests in his home for the evening and that we were welcome to walk anywhere and ask anything. If we did not like something or had any sensitivities, speak up – they’d make something else. If we wanted more of something, speak up – they’d bring it. And with that Act 1 was over and Act 2 began:
Act II – “The Sweeter Sibling” with seared Hawaiian walu, green curry beurre blanc, coconut caramel black rice, and glazed bok choy.
Act III – “A Tasty Currency” with pan roasted white prawns, creamy parmesan grits (white hominy grits), charred peppers and onions, bacon jus and crispy pancetta.
Intermission – Intermission at The Kitchen is no break from the cooking and food extravaganza. Instead, it is the dinner guests’ opportunity to get up and wander into the kitchen, out onto the patio, into the wine cellar, and interact with all the chefs and servers. Food? Yeah, there is more. For example, think more fresh bread, sushi, chips and salsa, tacos and yes, freshly shucked oysters (as many as you want when oysters are in season). If you are of a mind to sample some VERY fine liquor, then that need will be met too. On this night, there was a special batch of whiskey so fine it was fetching $200 a shot. Yeah, we passed. But it was there if you wanted it, and some folks certainly did.
Act IV – “Everyone Loves Pie” with crisp potato and sauerkraut pierogi, truffle butter brussels sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms and prosciutto.
Act V – “The Upper Crust” with butter poached beef tenderloin, potato-turnip gratin, creamed Bloomsdale spinach and red wine jus.
Act VI – “Hau’oli La Ho’omaika’I” with dark chocolate butter mochi, chai cremeux, smoked cocoa nib and pomegranate jam.
Dessert to go…
We were both so full by dessert it was hard to imagine eating anything more. And we were both ready to pass (ok, so maybe just nibble) when Chef McCown decided to whip up some fresh chocolate chip cookies topped with fresh whipped cream and personally hand them to each of us at the counter BEFORE the real dessert. Saying “no” was not an option. Fortunately, all we had to do was ask, and our desserts were carefully boxed up – with a few extra sweets tossed in we think – to enjoy the next day once our tummies returned to normal size. There IS a limit at some point!
As we drove home that evening – our dog eagerly sniffing at the leftover boxes she would not get to enjoy – it was with a huge smile. The Kitchen had once again lived up to its billing. Yes, it is quite expensive — $135 per person plus 20% gratuity and, if you wish, wine or other drinks on top of that – bills can be quite high but if you limit yourself to food (plus tax and tip) it comes to $174.96 per guest at the time of this writing. So go ahead and splurge.
Still, there is a reason McCown’s dinner show is booked out weeks or months in advance – the food is amazing, the service top of its class, the staff all personable and very well trained, and the entertainment – yes, eye-roll worthy and possibly a bit offensive to some at times – is icing on the cake or, in this case, a chocolate chip cookie with whipped cream melting off the sides.