Oasis Rediscovered

Waterboy serves a perfect first night back

By Greg Sabin
June 2021

Since normal life stopped last year, we’ve all coped in different ways. We’ve hurt in different ways and changed in different ways. Few people have had more difficult times than my friends in the restaurant business.

As restrictions lift for restaurants, the demand for dining out is palpable. Restaurant owners scramble to find staff. Reservations are a must at many joints. I’ve seen dining rooms run out of food before dinner service ends.

In this intense environment, my wife and I made our first trip out for an elegant date night. We chose a local institution, The Waterboy.

I’ve been frequenting restaurants throughout the pandemic, usually for takeout. I’ve had a few meals out and about, but usually from casual, order-at-the-counter places with plenty of outdoor seating.

Our dinner at The Waterboy was our first white-tablecloth and waiter experience in more than a year. It felt weird for maybe 30 seconds. Then, we looked at each other and realized how much we missed it. We missed the casual conversation, the subtle people watching, the chance encounters with old friends. We missed being out.

Our waiter greeted us at our patio table on a perfect Sacramento spring evening with, “Haven’t seen you in a while!” It was lovely to hear. It was lovely to be missed. It was lovely to be served. And very few places in town serve customers better than The Waterboy.

The stripped down and approachable menu sings with seasonal ingredients. The local farms and producers on the menu seem boringly commonplace now, but I know chef and owner Rick Mahan and his team have done this for decades.

We started with a small plate of deviled eggs. Beautifully presented over a bed of pea shoots and topped delightfully with a single fried caper, the dish let us know we were in expert hands.

We followed with a beguiling plate of house-smoked salmon and gorgeous beets. Our waiter named the farm that produced the beets, but lucky if I could hear him over the slurping sounds I made while forking the salmon, beets and creme fraiche into my happy mouth. Beyond the flavors, the plate spoke of care, creativity and the colors of the season. This was more than sustenance. This was beautiful food that filled the senses.

I could have gone big for my entrée—leg of lamb, halibut and scallops in saffron butter sauce or even an indulgent strip steak. But I opted for chicken. Yes, chicken. And man, it was amazing. Dressed with chunks of pork belly, dried cherries and butternut squash, and served on an arugula and bread salad, it was blissful.

My wife opted for gnocchi Bolognese, which was everything it should be. Tender gnocchi, richly simmered sauce and deft seasoning made a perfect plate.

The dessert selection constructed by pastry chef Melissa Sanders was impossible to overlook. Our selection, the “cocoflan” cake—a dense chocolate cake topped with a layer of flan—did not disappoint. It’s a creative dish, beautifully executed. We left not a crumb.

The Waterboy is a perfect first stop if you haven’t been out to a proper “nice dinner” for a while. It’s unpretentious yet elegant. Chef Mahan is as much an institution in this town as his 25-year-old Midtown restaurant. Things might not be “back to normal,” but small tastes of normalcy bring light to your life.

The Waterboy is at 2000 Capitol Ave.; (916) 498-9891; waterboyrestaurant.com.

Greg Sabin can be reached at gregsabin@hotmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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