Glad to be Back
Sacramento institution returns, this time in East Sacramento
By Greg Sabin
I’ve lived in Sacramento for almost 40 years, so I’ve been to Celestin’s Restaurant. It seems like a fact of life for any long-term diner in this town—if you’ve been around for more than two decades, you’ve eaten at Celestin’s.
You might have dined at the J Street location, where Patrick Celestin and his wife Phoebe held court starting in 1983. That same space became the first home of Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine, by the way. If my spatial geography is on point, I believe that same space is now the tiki bar extraordinaire, The Jungle Bird.
If you weren’t around for Celestin’s 1.0, then you most likely stopped in at Celestin’s 2.0, aka Celestin’s Restaurant & Voodoo Lounge at 1815 K St. The space was much larger than the petite J Street location in which the windows would often steam up from the hot bowls of gumbo coming out of the postage stamp of a kitchen. The K Street spot sported a hip bar and plenty of dining space. But, in 2011, the Celestins felt the place had run its course.
Fast forward to 2018. A small kitchen and dining room come available on a cozy East Sacramento street. It’s a perfect opportunity for the local pair to reinvigorate their restaurant, this time stripping it down to basics and letting the simple things shine.
Two years in and Sacramento seems appreciative that Celestin’s Restaurant is back in the local food scene, dishing out bowls of gumbo, Caribbean cuisine and creole favorites.
The 3.0 edition of the restaurant is small by any standards. Just 10 tables and a handful of counter seats make up the dining room. The kitchen is in full view of every seat. It’s intimate, casual and totally inviting.
The menu has changed, but only by narrowing its focus. Whereas the previous iteration had a fairly extensive list of dishes, this new Celestin’s offers a pared down list of favorites with a few select choices for vegans and vegetarians to boot.
My favorite dish, grio, is unchanged from the first time I had it in 1992. It’s a simple Haitian dish featuring chunks of pork marinated in sour orange, lime and spices, then fried to crispy perfection. Served alongside are tostones (twice fried plantains) and ti-malice sauce (fresh lime, shallots, thyme and habaneros). That’s it—fried pork, fried banana cousins and a spicy/sweet/citrus sauce. Do you need anything else? I never have.
However, it’s important to go outside your comfort zone, and I actually sampled a host of dishes other than grio so that you, dear reader, get a broader view of the delicacies coming out of Patrick Celestin’s kitchen.
The simple, some might say predictable, shrimp po’ boy is actually unpredictably excellent. The local Acme roll stands in well for New Orleans-style French bread while still being undoubtedly Californian. The shrimp, fried off beautifully, sport a coating of cornmeal that gives a lovely bite to the whole sandwich. Dressed with the standard lettuce, tomato and creole mayo, it’s a treat.
But really what you remember, if you’ve been to Celestin’s in the last four decades, is the gumbo. Celestin is a master of the roux, and coaxes the maximum depth of flavor from a chocolate/brick concoction that rivals any west of the Mississippi.
The house special gumbo offers generous portions of chicken, sausage, rock cod, scallops and shrimp. A vegetarian option is available too. It’s an impressive task to finish a bowl at a single sitting. But really, why would you need to? The next day’s leftovers make for fine dining at home. Besides, you’ll want to save room for dessert.
My favorite on the dessert menu is, maybe predictably, the key lime pie. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re not deconstructing an old familiar. We’re just enjoying a traditional dish done traditionally. Its only rival might be the insanely excellent slice served by Kira O’Donnell Babich at the Real Pie Company at Broadway and 24th. Great crust, tart and sweet filling, mounds of whipped cream. It’s a treasure.
I could sum up Celestin’s with some heart-stringy wrap-up of how we should always appreciate what we have since you never know when it’ll be gone. But I’ll just be personal for a moment and say Celestin’s Restaurant brings me joy, and I’m sure glad it’s back in my life. And, to be honest, I’m glad it’s back in your life too.
Celestin’s Restaurant is at 3610 McKinley Blvd.; (916) 258-4060; celestinsgumbo.com.
Greg Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.