Unpretentious and exceptional, East Sacramento’s Canon is an ‘instant classic’

The job of a restaurant critic is to identify problems – with the food, with the service, with the space. Sometimes they are easy to spot. Others times, they are more elusive. And on very rare occasions, they are almost nonexistent. This is one of those times.

 Review

On my three visits to Canon – a new East Sacramento restaurant focusing on elevated, innovative “share plates” – I kept waiting for something to criticize. Instead, the restaurant got better on each visit, first at dinner, then at one of the best brunches I’ve had in Sacramento, and finally at another near-flawless dinner.

Canon, opened in October by chef Brad Cecchi and Clay Nutting, betrayed none of the jitters that often mar a newer establishment, no sense that the concept was less than fully formed. Hardly a flavor was amiss in any of the dozens of ambitious, intricate bites I sampled.

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The ownership team’s experience shows. Cecchi, a Sacramento native who started out in the restaurant world as a teen washing dishes at Embassy Suites, went on to earn a Michelin star for his work in the kitchen at Calistoga’s Solbar. I had the pleasure of eating there during his tenure, and he runs a tight ship. Nutting, who co-founded LowBrau, is a well-known restaurateur whose involvement in the local arts scene has influenced Canon’s strong aesthetic stamp.

Canon’s design is one of its pleasures. The location, on a drab stretch of 34th Street between Folsom and Stockton boulevards, might seem improbable. It’s next to Fitness Rangers gym and across from the sadly abandoned Muzio’s Bakery building. Head up the vegetable-garden-lined walkway to the restaurant, however, and you forget about the outside world. Inside, the space bathes everyone – from guests who clearly just got out of spin class to those gussied up – in a convivial glow.

The high-ceiling room, with its subtle gold light fixtures, has an elegant-barn look. Soothing deep blue walls flank cozy booths. The inviting marble-top bar has a surprise TV, but it’s hidden behind a panel most of the time. There’s local art inside and out: a mosaic of found objects from Sacramento streets by Nathan Cordero is the focal point of the west wall, and outside is a bright floral mural, the words “East Sac” at its center, painted for Wide Open Walls.

Thought has clearly gone into every detail of the restaurant, including the gleaming curved silver service tongs, the Heath stoneware plates in delicate robin’s-egg blue and the menus on creamy paper bearing a subtle handwritten edition number. The menu offers two sections: smaller plates (“everything is designed to be shared”) and larger dishes (“heartier plates but still sharable”).

The pickled vegetable appetizer José Luis Villegas jvillegas

Cecchi treats vegetables with as much seriousness as meat, and both vegans and vegetarians will find much to love here, such as the red khuri squash, a sweet-spicy mix of creamy textures offset by savory burnt onions and tiny round “vadouvan crispies,” mini rice puffs with an explosive popping crunch. (Vadouvan is an Indian spice blend.) I’m not always a squash lover, but this was one of the best dishes we sampled.

Perhaps nowhere is the respect paid to vegetables as clear as in the appetizer of seasonal pickled vegetables. Dramatic on their bed of crushed ice and nestled amid bay leaves and pea tendrils, the six different pickles are arranged with lavish care. Tangy electric-yellow cauliflower, sweet bread-and-butter pickle style, is contrasted by a classic dill spear, jicama with anchovy and a punchy tangle of beet greens with horseradish and dusky caraway. Slippery pink onions with orange and Shaoxing wine and a Granny Smith apple kimchi complete the plate. It all made a festive display, but more importantly served as a true appetizer, whetting but not dulling the palate or filling us up.

Often, I find small-plates dining overly rich. Chefs showing off their chops can sometimes load up too much on lavish ingredients, leaving diners woozy and overstuffed. Here there’s no shortage of richer dishes, but they’re balanced by equally attractive salads and small plates like the grilled octopus (two ultra-tender tentacles with salsa verde and the stealth sweetness of apricot) and grilled cauliflower, charred crisp, in a deep bowl of tabbouleh and garlicky-but-balanced hummus.

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Yellowtail crudo felt a little heavier, its precision-cut tiles of fish atop a rich Calabrian chile, walnut and lemon puree. If I had a tiny nitpick, it was that I wanted just a touch sharper acidity to balance the dish.

Grilled octopus José Luis Villegas jvillegas

What if you’re after something more filling? The adorable round tower of tots in a pool of mole sauce has you covered. This high-end spin on an Americana school lunch standard – balanced with a complex, labor-intensive mole – is the first dish Cecchi conceived for the menu, and he says it embodies his vision for Canon’s food: approachable classics elevated by technique-intensive, ambitious global flavors.

The tot tower looked amusingly like a mini golden wedding cake, especially since it was scattered with pastel-pink shavings of pickled onion. Pleasingly crunchy outside, creamy within, the tots sat on a bed of mole sauce. With nearly 60 ingredients – according to Cecchi, it contains several kinds of nuts, four kinds of chile, roasted plantains, chocolate and more items, each toasted to its own edge of bitterness – it might sound like fussy overkill, but we swiped up every drop.

Two meaty small plates were standouts: chicken drumsticks and the St. Louis ribs. The drumsticks were fried, dunked in urfa chile sauce and dusted with fragrant orange zest and dried garlic. I don’t know if you would find espresso tamarind sauce on many ribs in St. Louis, but deeply tangy sauce and tender pork, with a sprinkling of crunchy corn nuts and bright Fresno chiles, were a winning combination.

St. Louis ribs include espresso tamarind sauce, corn nuts, scallions and pickled chilies. José Luis Villegas jvillegas

From the larger plates, the lamb pavé, served with pickled golden raisins, was a griddled oblong and featured almost fluffy shreds of flavorful lamb, lightly compressed into a brick and then crisped on its sides. Making braised lamb into something light tasting while still flavorful is quite the trick, one the kitchen pulled off with aplomb. The accompanying flatbreads, blackened in spots, were the tiniest touch doughy, but still delicious, and a puddle of creamy yogurt sauce was ask-for-seconds good.

The lamb had disappeared from the menu on our second dinner visit but plates such as beer-can chicken and 28-ounce rib-eye, aged for 28 days, remained. The latter was too ambitious for our small group. Instead, we tried a Liberty duck the kitchen also dry ages. Seared and sliced, the rich breast was perfectly medium rare, with lush confited leg and thigh meat alongside.

Brunch is a recent addition to Canon’s lineup, with service starting in early December, but it felt as smooth as silky avocado on toast. Indeed, in addition to dishes such as polenta with poached egg, there’s a whole section for toast, and the wryly named “Yes, Avocado” is the first item listed. It’s served with Dungeness crab, preserved lemon and roasted tomato on sweet brioche. I was taken with the smoked-sturgeon toast on rye, which had more of those pickled beet greens.

Don’t miss the sweet potato cinnamon roll, with a thick smear of cream-cheese icing, which my kids wolfed down. Brunch at Canon is refined, but we weren’t the only family there. Grown-ups can look to the brunch cocktails. The Green Living, with gin, cucumber, celery, mint and lemon, was a winner, if perhaps not quite so healthy as the name implies; the bloody mary was spicy and solid.

Tots with mole Jose Luis Villegas

Cocktails are a strength in the evening too, as is the well-considered wine and beer list. Lead bartender Jack Winks, who according to Cecchi has been working in Parisian cocktail bars for the past decade, devises the drinks. Such concoctions as the Vista Clara (tequila, Benedictine, lime cordial, Pernod and falernum) or the John Canoe (two kinds of rum, Oloroso sherry and chestnut orgeat) are refreshingly distinctive, especially in their use of rarer liqueurs – but they also just taste great.

Cocktail service led to one of the only minor service blunders we encountered, when a rushed server took my cocktail order but oddly failed to wait long enough to get my husband’s drink choice. Mostly, service was highly professional.

Small plates present a service challenge, thanks to lots of dirty plates with competing sauces. By and large, Canon handled this seamlessly, thanks to an armada of servers who had bussers shadowing them closely. Once, we were asked to hang onto our cutlery through a plate change, a request that always feels stingy to me, not to mention icky. I’m never sure quite what to do: set a fork with food residue on the table or lick it clean? But this was an exception. On other visits, we got a limitless supply of clean flatware.

The staff is not just plentiful, it’s well trained. Although the menu changes often, our servers knew it cold and gave voluble – but not unwelcome – descriptions of the complex dishes. Our servers were familiar with subtleties on the wine, beer and cocktail lists as well, able to comment knowledgeably but not pompously on the difference between two reds offered by the glass (a Bruliam Pinot Noir and a Skinner Mourvedre) and how well each would go with the duck.

Chocolate cake Jose Luis Villegas

I’ve long thought it’s a pity that more Sacramento restaurants can’t invest in a dedicated pastry chef. Canon has a kind of half-measure: Chef de cuisine Jodie Chavious has a pastry background and handles baking and sweets, Cecchi said. Her gluten-free, towering chocolate cake with almond buttercream is the pastry menu’s runaway hit. Standing hat-box tall, its rich and fudgy cake layers are interleaved with silken chocolate buttercream and a nubbly-textured almond buttercream with caramelized crisped rice.

Another playful sweet is the gorp, which featured caramel corn with dried blueberries and salty peanuts presented in a cut-glass footed candy dish. It’s ideal for nibbling on with a crowd. Restrained appetites will appreciate the dessert tapas, such as Canon “oreos” with beet buttercream and blood orange pâte de fruits. The housemade marshmallows were a bit too dense – which, speaking as a marshmallow lover, may be the worst thing I can find to say about Canon.

That’s not a particularly damning quibble. Canon’s name boldly stakes a claim to greatness; the canon in any field, after all, refers to the works that endure, and those against which future works are measured. With a less talented team at the helm, such a claim could feel arrogant. Instead, Canon feels like an instant classic. I’m already looking forward to going back.

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Canon

1719 34th St., ;

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-midnight Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.- midnight Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar with specialty cocktails and a diverse beer and wine list.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise levels: High. Echoing hard surfaces abound, but the restaurant design includes some thoughtful attempts at noise abatement, such as the foam installed on the underside of the chairs.

Ambiance: Elegant without a hint of stuffiness, Canon feels celebratory enough for a special occasion, yet equally approachable for a weeknight dinner or casual brunch.

Overall

☆☆☆☆

With a clear vision, a striking aesthetic and distinctive, mouthwatering flavors, Canon is a stellar and welcome addition to Sacramento’s dining scene. There’s no reason, however, to save it for a special occasion. Thanks to Canon’s low-key but elevated vibe, dropping in for a cocktail at happy hour or for one of the toasts at brunch is as rewarding as building a multicourse meal.

Food

☆☆☆☆

Chef Brad Cecchi’s flavors rank among the best in town, thanks to an approach that marries easy-to-love classics (tater tots, ribs) with global flavors. Vegetables are taken seriously, with scene-stealing results such as the red khuri squash. Don’t miss the gluten-free chocolate cake with almond buttercream.

Service

☆☆☆ 1/2

Informed, well trained and numerous, the staff at Canon takes its job seriously, offering professional but unpretentious service that supports the restaurant’s mission.

Value

☆☆☆

Nobody’s going to claim that Canon is a bargain, with small plates running $7 (for the bread plate) to $19 and large entrees up to $74 (for a 28-oz ribeye). But the precise, inventive food and drinks and seamless experience justify the price.

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