BY PETE TITTL
Keeping tabs on Bakersfield's restaurant scene can be a tall order for one guy, so I always appreciate it when readers keep me informed of their restaurant experiences. Some months ago John A. Smith (he probably gets a lot of jokes with that name, most involving Pocahontas) told me about a disappointing dinner at Sandrini's Italian & Basque Restaurant & Bar.
Two of his dinner guests had satisfying meals, but his wife wasn't so lucky; she wanted to order the flat iron steak but someone forgot to defrost it in advance. Then she selected the cannelloni, but they were out of that. When she finally settled on the eggplant Napoleon, she got lukewarm marinara sauce and an eggplant that seemed to have been planted in the pan many hours earlier. Another companion wanted a full rack of lamb, but only a half rack was left, and the mashed potatoes were gone, so risotto was substituted without consultation. Smith was not impressed.
My experiences over the years have been hit and miss, much like what Mr. Smith described. Sometimes a great new chef gets established in the kitchen and I get wowed. Then something happens, I have a mediocre experience, and I mentally cross it off my "visit for fun" list.
Having said that, our visit last month was pretty good. We sampled the Italian sausage bread appetizer ($8), the halibut Romesco ($23) and the half rack (four bones) of lamb ($22). The menu has a mix of Italian and Basque choices, including nine pastas. They even have paella ($19, with clams, shrimp, sausage and scallops), a rarity in local restaurants.
Everything was good, though my companion's rosemary-seasoned lamb was well-done, not medium as ordered. As a result, it was not as tender and flavorful as it should be. The sauce, if anything, saved it. It's the sort of sterling effort you find at a restaurant that charges twice as much, a conglomeration of garlic, red wine and olive oil that would make any dark meat taste exceptional.
My halibut was a stunner. The pan-seared filet was presented on top of the "pureed potatoes" (mashed potatoes made thinner and flavored with chives) and another exceptional sauce made from tomatoes, red peppers and almonds.
On the side was a tempting mix of vegetables, including red and green peppers, zucchini and yellow squash, steamed but not overcooked. The fish was delectably fresh tasting, and the sauce helped the whole plate soar. It's a classic old- school dish and more expertly done than my companion's lamb entrÃ©e.
But there's more to recommend at Sandrini's than the food. I love the space -- the old brick-wall basement and that aged vibe that isn't phony. The pool table is fun and there are always interesting people with multiple tattoos and piercings hanging out. I've been there for trivia night on Tuesdays and it's a fun experience, even if the customers are pale and smart and look like they've forgotten more books than I've ever read. (Be warned: It's an edgy atmosphere and the F-word gets tossed around liberally).
I love that they have more beers than even Eureka, including Irish beers like Smithwick's (a red ale from Dublin) on tap.
A few other things to mention: Reservations are a good idea, if not a must. On the weekend night we visited we got the last free table after a 10-minute wait at the bar and other walk-ins after us had a longer wait. The dining area is exceptionally bright, possibly to help old eyes read the menu. Some may not like that luminosity. On weekday nights the bar can be significantly understaffed, but weekends have a more efficient crew.
Sandrini's is the kind of place that is capable of getting a lot of small details right. We sampled the Basque cabbage soup with our entrees, and their version is a bold, spicy version, as if the salsa most Basque restaurants allow you to mix in was already in, and with a lot more kick to it than the mild variety we usually get. The ordinary bread before dinner was served with a soft dill and chive butter that made it thrilling. And that appetizer we selected is a must order, a calzone with many cuts on top that is something like a spicy pizza roll. It's been a Sandrini's favorite for a long time, and with good reason.
So, overall, my companion, who is not easily pleased, was impressed enough to suggest we return again soon, if only for an appetizer and a drink. Here's hoping for an experience that's similar when we go back.