Bite by Bite
With a memorable tasting menu, Sabio turns Pleasanton into a dining destination
By Alix Wall
Four small bites come out on a wooden plate that looks like it was cut straight from a tree:
deviled egg with a bit of Dungeness crab, paddlefish caviar,
and a sprinkling of chives mounded atop the yolk
house-made salt cod croquette with ancho chili romesco
skewer with a quail egg, black olive, and bites of miniature potatoes,
all drizzled with bright-yellow Peruvian aji amarillo sauce
cube of maple-glazed pork belly sharing a skewer with a piece of roasted kabocha squash
and a pomegranate seed garnish
Paired with a glass of pinot noir rosé from the Santa Maria Valley, these bites are only the start of a memorable tasting experience, which could encompass as many as ten courses, if you’re lucky enough to experience the Chef’s Tasting Menu.
Welcome to Sabio on Main, located in the heart of Pleasanton. This cozy Alameda County suburb is often overlooked as a Bay Area dining destination, but if Sabio owner Jim McDonnell and executive chef/owner Francis Hogan have their way, that might be about to change.
The first four courses come in rapid succession and are meant to be eaten in one or two bites. Then you enter something more like traditional degustation menu territory as vegetable, fish, game, and a third protein course arrive. Along the way you’ll try some house-made breads and sodas. The wind-down with cheese and dessert includes some small bites from the pastry department.
Rising Beside Livermore Valley
McDonnell and Hogan have watched the neighboring town of Livermore come alive with the growing reputation of Livermore Valley as a wine destination, and they hope to see Pleasanton follow suit.
“Livermore Valley has a lot to offer, and it’s highly underappreciated as a wine region,” says McDonnell. “Any great wine destination also needs great restaurants. This area has incredibly talented winemakers, and if you’re dedicated to local sourcing and eating products that come from this community, Sabio on Main should be an obvious stop.”
The eatery has gained a steady following since it opened in the fall of 2015. It’s certainly a tapas place, but don’t look for traditional Spanish dishes. Think more toward small plates with global influences and a pronounced Northern Californian ethos.
“I was executive chef of a modern Spanish restaurant in Seattle,” says Hogan, who before opening Sabio spent time in Spain training at some Michelin-starred establishments. He emphasizes his love for how the small-plates approach encourages sharing and interaction, even as he deviates quite broadly from traditional Spanish food. “I’ve always liked small plates, in that you’re sharing bold flavors and food as part of an experience, and not just staring at your plate and eating quietly.”
The format greatly appeals to McDonnell, who also shares Hogan’s commitment to local sourcing and sustainability. “Nearly everything we use comes from local farmers or ranchers, and our menu is constantly in flux,” says McDonnell. “Francis has the ability to take an ingredient that’s only available for several weeks and do something extraordinary with it.”
A Farmer in the Kitchen
Only a handful of Bay Area restaurateurs can claim they have a nearby farmer delivering fresh produce in person to the kitchen door. Fred Hempel comes from Baia Nicchia Farm in the nearby Sunol Ag Park and steps into the Sabio kitchen with the delivery, then stays a while.
“Fred now works at Sabio one day a week,” says Hogan. “He comes in Wednesday afternoons at 3pm and spends a few hours with me in the kitchen, then shifts to the floor as a food runner. There’s no other restaurant that I know of where the person who grew your food also serves it to you! The connection is awesome.”
The relationship goes two ways. As McDonnell was launching Sabio, he signed up with Artisan Seeds—Baia Nicchia’s plant breeding operation—as an investor and also a collaborator: Hogan has been working with Hempel on a new tomato called Sabio Verde.
“It’s a green tomato that ripens, but never softens,” says Hempel.
If you have an hour to learn about classical (read: non-GMO) plant breeding, Hempel, a plant geneticist, could talk about this tomato as an example of the process that brings more and better produce into the market. Many of those beautiful tomatoes we see at the farmers’ market (which people mistakenly refer to as heirlooms) are developed by breeders like Hempel. He says that Sabio Verde originated from a tomato called Firma Verde. “The fact that it remains firm allows Francis to use it in some novel ways: mixed with other tomatoes to give taste and texture diversity to the dish or cooked without losing shape,” says Hempel.
All summer long Hempel brings in a wide range of tomatoes. Then throughout the year as he harvests other items, he might bring Ethiopian mustard, specialty beets, aji amarillo peppers, Persian spearmint, and chive flowers. Baia Nicchia’s za’atar (spice blend) is also popular in the Sabio kitchen.
Where’s the Beef From?
Sabio’s beef comes from the Rancho Alena Cattle Company, a producer in Loma Rica (near Yuba City) that sells almost exclusively to the South Bay–based Avenir Restaurant Group.
“I purchase one whole cow at a time and work my way through all of it until it’s finished,” says Hogan. “It’s great for [the rancher] because he is not stuck with the less popular cuts and can really control his cost. And it allows me to be creative and know that I’m doing the right thing by him. The tasting menu is a great way to use something. For example, if I get two pounds of hangar steak, it’s not enough to put on the regular menu, but we can put it on the tasting menu.”
A Downtown Sonoma Vibe
McDonnell’s passion for food started as a hobby. He worked in the tech world at Cisco Systems for over a decade and now is at a medical tech startup. But he always had a passion for food and wine. As a longtime Pleasanton resident, he had never quite found the eatery where he wanted to be a regular, but now he has a restaurant of his own, one that he can walk to.
He found Hogan through a search, but the location wasn’t an easy sell. Hogan lives in Oakland and had been cooking in San Francisco. (He spent four years at Bluestem Brasserie.)
“I thought Pleasanton was all malls and car dealerships,” he says. “But we had lunch and walked around the downtown, and I saw a different side to this town. It had so much potential and a downtown Sonoma vibe to it.”
McDonnell notes that Sabio is the only restaurant in the East Bay with two certifications for green practices, one from the San Francisco–based Eat REAL (Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership, not the Oakland-based festival of the same name), and the other from Denver-based Good Food 100 Restaurants. McDonnell finds it’s worth the extra expense and paperwork because he believes diners have the right to full transparency regarding the origins of everything on the plate.
Sabio’s tasting menu is a steal for $99 (with an additional $50 for wine pairings), but not everyone is always in the mood for over ten courses, so plenty of customers order à la carte. Since opening, there are two dishes that are always on the menu, no matter the season. A quail egg with blood sausage on toast derives from Hogan’s experience in Spain, but the chef gave the tapa a California treatment by adding avocado for his unique version of avocado toast on house-made sourdough. He uses house-made chorizo instead of the sausage. And then there’s the dish he humbly calls Central Coast Cauliflower, a descriptor that says nothing about the flavor that bursts forth from this common brassica. Cauliflower is a current restaurant darling, possibly because of its blank-canvas aspect, but I haven’t had it like this anywhere else. Hogan looks towards Asia as he deep-fries and flavors his cauliflower with sambal, lime, fish sauce, garlic, and peanuts. It’s cauliflower to be reckoned with.
“This is a dish that does not come off the menu,” says Hogan. “People would want to shut us down.” ´
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: the Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child. Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter @WallAlix.
At right, top to bottom: chicken meatballs “Kuku Paka,” a dish inspired by east African cuisine; deviled egg with smoked trout and paddlefish caviar; seared SoCal yellowtail niçoise salad; and a chocolate-espresso panna cotta.