By Ed Murrieta; Photos and video by John Hernandez
Johnny Apple, the late globe-trotting omnivore who ate and wrote for the New York Times, ordered an “emergency” meal whenever he checked into strange hotels:
Shrimp cocktail, strip steak and a Heineken.
“It was the best you could get at the Salt Lake City Hilton,” Apple told me years ago.
Hotel restaurants’ reputations are easily bashed: high prices, bland atmosphere and a laissez-faire relationship with seasonal cuisine, never mind anything grown and raised locally.
Such reputations should be reconsidered, particularly in Sacramento, America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.
As Apple’s old newspaper recently reported, corporate hotels today are following the lead of independent restaurants by sourcing local and sustainable meats, vegetables and fruits.
This newfound focus on sense of place is a bright spot at Dawson’s, the Hyatt Regency Sacramento’s moody steakhouse-style restaurant, where chef Jason Poole, a 10-year veteran of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, is making the company’s culinary mantra – food thoughtfully sourced, carefully served – a reality, at least five ingredients at a time.
Five locally sourced ingredients. That’s what Hyatt Hotels Corporation requires its chefs to include in their menus at more than 100 full-service hotels in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.
Over dinner for two, a solo meal at the bar and during a multi-course photo shoot just after Poole completed his menu’s spring makeover in late May, I was surprised – deliciously surprised – by Dawson’s locality and vitality, especially considering that very little about Dawson’s has changed since it opened 25 years ago.
Five locally sourced ingredients? Poole’s first courses alone beat that quota.
Dawson’s star starter, to me, is the wilted spinach and strawberry salad. What makes this sizable salad stand up and stand out is the deeply verdant Bloomsdale spinach, a sexy variety whose curly leaves do not actually wilt when they’re tossed in the hot bacon vinaigrette with white balsamic vinegar, whole-grain mustard and honey. The spinach, grown by Riverdog Farms in Yolo County, has body and tender bite. Its mottled folds conceal bursts of dressing and bits of lardons. Mild, early-blooming Alba strawberries balanced the dressing’s bacony bite. As the season peaks, sweeter strawberries will make this salad sing, especially against the tart notes of the rhubarb gastrique drizzled around the plate.
Dawson’s being essentially a steakhouse at heart, it’s heartening to find locally raised beef on the menu – a cleanly flavored grass-fed, all-natural, dry-aged bone-in rib-eye from Lucky Dog Ranch in Winters, which supplies top-end restaurants in Sacramento, San Francisco and Napa.
While less local and cut from an all-natural cow raised on a corn diet, the bone-in rib-eye from Brandt Beef in southeastern California was one of the most tender and flavorful steaks I’ve cut into recently – simply seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled perfectly medium rare.
The steakhouse-style topping of roasted bone marrow was simply added decadence. Like spreading butter on bacon, it was a soft, melting accompaniment to deliciously beefy bites.
Following the advice of a veteran bartender – “Order anything with a bone in it and it’s going to be good” – I also ordered the bone-in pork chop. This wasn’t just any pork chop, but the rib-eye steak of pork chops – a thick, meaty cut from a wooly Mangalitsa pig that was fed hazelnuts in the Pacific Northwest. While it’s hard to see the marbling in the white meat, Mangalitsas are fattier pigs, and even though this pork chop was cooked like a steak – salted, peppered and grilled – the sweet meat near the bone was layered with fat, like a good, slow-cooked pork spare rib. Accentuating the pork chop’s steakiness, Poole served it with an Argentine chimichurri, a parsley-garlic-vinegar salsa that is a steak’s best friend.
The last addition to Poole’s recently updated menu is a dish so good I had to have it twice – duck (from Mary’s Organics of Fresno) served two ways. The leg quarter was confit, cooked in duck fat until the sweet, dusky meat was firm and falling off the bone. The pan-roasted breast was ruby and juicy, its skin crisp and glistening. A reduction of Madera wine and tomato paste – a blazing hue of sunset orange and fiery red grapes – deepened the flavors and visual pleasure on the plate.
Other entrees include roasted chicken (again, Mary’s Organics), lamb from a Pacific Northwest cooperative and salmon caught off the California coast. Having lived, dined and reviewed in the Puget Sound region for the early part of this century, I’ve had my fill of salmon, but the sweet puree of San Joaquin Valley corn that Poole set the filet upon hooked me on the dish.
Dawson’s desserts could use a little more local love, especially in summer stone-fruit and berry season. Dessert is always a whimsical, impulse order for me, so I declined the chocolate soufflé that requires ordering 20 minutes in advance. The apple fritters – apple slices, deep-fried in tempura batter – didn’t work for me. The apples were sliced too thick and were cooked without sweetening or seasoning. They begged for nutmeg or cinnamon sugar.
The carrot cake had me begging – for more. A staple since Dawson’s opened in 1988, this carrot cake is fluffy and moist, coated in cream cheese frosting that’s more tangy than sweet, and topped with shards of deep-fried carrots. The cherries hidden inside are dried cherries –one might hope for fresh Bings in summer – but I can’t fault the kitchen for not messing with a classic.
While I didn’t eat it at Dawson’s, I must mention one other Hyatt Regency dish – a smoked chicken tart that Poole’s banquet kitchen cooked for a recent farm-to-fork discussion attended by 500 members of Sacramento’s business community. Like all dishes on the Hyatt Regency’s banquet menus, this was all-organic – including the house-made puff pastry, the chicken (from Mary’s Organics), the Meyer lemon curd, the dandelion greens and the English peas, some of which came from the small vanity garden that Poole planted earlier this year on one of the Hyatt’s patios.
Inside Hyatt Regency Sacramento
1209 L St.
CUISINE: Classic American steakhouse-style restaurant also featuring chops, poultry, seafood and pasta.
ATMOSPHERE: Upscale and clubby – lots of dark woods and moody light.
WHAT YOU’LL PAY: Starters $9-$14, entrees $24-$38.
HOURS: Mondays-Fridays 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
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