By Marybeth Bizjak
At this East Sac restaurant, vegetables—locally sourced—are the stars on the plate.
ONE RECENT AFTERNOON, Nina Prychodzko arrived at East SMF, a new vegetable-focused restaurant in East Sacramento, bearing gifts: two buckets filled with blue hydrangeas and a small plastic bag with a handful of fava bean pods. Prychodzko, who lives a few blocks away, is an urban farmer, growing organic produce for a few restaurants like East SMF. (It’s legal, thanks to Sacramento’s 2015 urban agriculture ordinance.) That night, her hydrangeas ended up in a big bread bowl, decorating the restaurant, while the fava beans appeared in a dish of fresh pasta with arugula pesto.
Supporting small farmers like Prychodzko is the mission of East SMF owners Tony and Rhonda Gruska. The couple got their start in the restaurant business in 2006 when they started a pop-up restaurant in Winters, offering Chez Panisse-style prix-fixe dinners on the weekends. Everything they served was organic and sourced from local farmers. After a few years, they opened a conventional restaurant in Davis based on their pop-up model, called Monticello Seasonal Cuisine, again sourcing ingredients directly from local farmers. But they found Davis wasn’t particularly fertile soil for their brand of farm-to-fork entrepreneurship. They felt that the university, with its relationships with corporate agriculture, was antithetical to small farms, and they found themselves arguing with townspeople about GMOs. “We were in Monsantoville, struggling to do an organic restaurant for five years,” says Rhonda.
The restaurant is simple and unassuming, the menu small and tightly focused. A statement at the top of the menu reads like a manifesto, proclaiming East SMF a non-GMO zone and announcing that everything is organic, from the Acme bread and cultured butter to the locally roasted coffee and fair-trade tea. (Even some of the wines and several of the draft beers are organic.) Hanging on the wall are framed covers of a Davis alternative newspaper from the 1980s called Winds of Change, with illustrations by cartoonist R. Crumb taking on Big Ag.
While East SMF isn’t strictly vegetarian, it is vegetable forward, to use a slightly awkward but popular phrase. Starters include house-made flatbread with seasonal vegetables and fromage blanc, along with a couple of seasonal salads. The first dish on the list of main courses is a roasted vegetable sampler. A long, rectangular plate comes to the table laden with fresh produce from small, local farms like Gauchito Hill in Capay Valley, Fiddlers Green in Brooks and Green Almond in Winters. On the same day that Prychodzko brought in her homegrown fava bean pods, a young Gibson Ranch farmer named Maceo Hart-Kapic dropped off some baby lettuces (destined for the market salad) and a few pounds of beet trimmings that would be braised and served with dishes like chicken under a brick and pan-seared salmon.
A couple of culinary heavy hitters helped get East SMF open. Chef Stan Moore (The Kitchen, Tuli Bistro, Capital Dime and more) worked with the Gruskas in the restaurant’s early days, and former Ella pastry chef Rachel Kelley works there now, handling desserts and helping Tony Gruska in the kitchen during dinner. In a sign of support, local restaurateurs Aimal Formoli, Suzanne Ricci and Simon de Vere White have dropped in for dinner.
The Gruskas say they are finding Sacramento a congenial place for their pro-farmer business model. It is, after all, America’s Farm to Fork Capital. “People put their money where their mouth is here,” says Rhonda.