Cracked Pepper’s culinary reputation is well established. I have heard from many a friend and relative that if I wanted a truly great meal, I should go to Cracked Pepper when I pass through town. Even some trusted Bay Area friends suggested this place. I checked the usual on-line sources of information and they confirmed this Fresno culinary anomaly, great food from a great local chef.
But were these sources to be believed? Fresno fine dining has often been considered a contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp, 12 ounce pound cake, or genuine imitation crab meat. Was this just Fresno Speak; akin to a Soviet area communist party election with only one candidate and a 98% voter turnout? Should I really believe the Fulton Mall is going to turn around? Or that “this year” is the Bulldogs year to win it all? Go Dogs! Considering the number of national chain restaurants, mediocre bar and grill type establishments, and posers that scatter Fresno and Clovis, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I’m pleased to say Cracked Pepper Bistro in Fresno is a culinary treat.
Negative comments should generally be placed in the middle of a narrative and never at the end, unless you want the reader to remember it. And as much as I liked the food at Cracked Pepper, there were service and front-of-house aspects that must be addressed.
I had heard that reservations during prime time were difficult to obtain. So I called ahead and requested an 8:45 reservation, which was accommodated. When we arrived, we happily waited at the comfortable bar and proceeded to order a bottle of wine upon arrival. The wine glasses presented lacked polish from the minor water spotting. Noticing a bit of a wait from my perch at the bar, I asked for dinner menu at 9:00pm. Surprisingly, I did not receive one and was told that we would receive the eggplant Napoleon at the bar while we waited for a table. Fifteen minutes later, 9:15, we were seated at our table, sans eggplant. Pretty rough going. The dining room was full at the time and there were two large parties, so I understand to a degree they were slammed, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of attention. We weren’t hard to find as we were the only people at the bar.
The servers were pleasant, they smiled, and they understood and could explain the menu items. High marks. Wine and water were always full. However, finished plates sat far too long, from the finished eggplant to the entrées. Our server asked us if we wanted a box for the remaining pieces of our entrée and we said “No, we’re finished”. Our server then walked away from the table without removing anything. Strange. She came back minutes later to tell us about all the desserts and then waited for us to make a decision. I said, “I’d love a dessert, but could you clear dinner first?” She cleared the plates in front of us, but nothing else. Bread, bread dishes, an extra fork, knife and the romesco sauce (tasty by the way) remained after dinner. She returned to take our dessert order and still did not clear down the table. The table was finally cleared when dessert arrived.
I believe that the service issues I listed could be easily corrected. Considering the service team’s knowledge of the menu and obvious can-do attitude, they could easily remember to clear down after our entrées and polish the wine glasses. In the short-run, the food is good enough to out-weigh some of the service oversights. But, lack of attention to details and poor front-of-house planning for table turns will eventually catch up to any restaurant. Simply having great food won't be enough. Heaven forbid they do what other Fresno restaurants have done, open a second and much larger location in North Fresno!
Now that the tough love is over, let’s get to the star of the show; the food. We started with the Mala-Insana Napoleon or eggplant stack, a signature of the house. The eggplant was breaded and fried with alternating layers of cheese and tomato seasoned with various herbs. This dish couldn’t have been assembled early or the eggplant would have been mushy and stone cold. This stack was made fresh and to order. Nice execution and a simple dish. Flavors were what you would expect and transparent to the palate. A clean tasting appetizer. I’ve seen this dish over garnished 1000 times. Thanks for keeping this simple and clean.
The second course was risotto with prawns. The prawns were cooked with care, seasoned nicely, and stacked on top of the rice, not incorporated into it. The risotto was cooked as advertised by our server “al dente” or according to me “properly cooked”. Attention Fresno: Risotto isn’t Minute Rice and should never be mushy. Thank you Vatche for cooking risotto properly! (The fact that the server had to explain what properly cooked risotto texture feels like in the mouth when chewed doesn't surprise me.) A hint of smoke from the ham or perhaps tasso or speck permeated the dish. The smokiness was not overpowering, simulating almost of grilled flavor when the rice was eaten with the prawns.
Third course was one of the specials, an 8 ounce filet topped with a bleu veined cheese and served with polenta and asparagus. The filet was well rested when served and an absolutely perfect medium rare, as ordered. The asparagus stalks were peeled to the flesh; an often overlooked refinement (nice job again Vatche). The asparagus was simply blanched to tender and rested near the polenta . The polenta still tasted of corn rather than butter, cream, and cheese. The polenta texture was medium-loose, not crusty or seized up. Each item on the plate tasted as is should without being overwrought with additional garnish, sides, or sauces. Simplicity and proper execution, a real treat in Fresno, or anywhere for that matter.
To finish, the Signature Bread Pudding was a must to try, even if I was already stuffed. I’ve seen write-ups in the Fresno Bee, heard from friends, and of course pitched by our server about how great Vatche’s bread pudding is. So the verdict? Well, hiding under a mound of whipping cream and surrounded by caramel sauce, I spotted the bread. The mixture of breads was rich, creamy, wet, slightly tangy, perhaps a lingering alcohol flavor from vanilla, and certainly sweet. I invoke the Personal Preference Clause here and will not render a judgment. Bread pudding is about as individualized as "the best according to you" mac n’ cheese, pizza, BBQ Ribs, or hamburger; everyone has their favorite. I suggest you try the bread pudding for yourself to determine what type of bread pudding you enjoy.
The Roar 2008 Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir we ordered was ruby red in color, with a fragrant nose of rose and cherry. Obviously a young wine, bright acidity and forward on the palate. I figured Pinot was a good neutral wine with a yet unseen menu. Because of the smokiness of the risotto, it paired well with the dish. Even the lean filet was a good match. The wine list is reasonably priced and well selected. I’d order off the menu, despite my proclivity for bringing my own wine.
I understand I may take some heat for this review, considering my opening paragraphs on the calculated mediocrity of restaurants in Fresno and that Fresno diners need disclosure on how risotto is cooked. So be it. When I state that Cracked Pepper Bistro, from a culinary standpoint is very good to near great, I’m not using my base of comparison to other Fresno restaurants, hardly. I’m comparing the food at Cracked Pepper Bistro to restaurants in major metropolitan areas with prices to match. High quality ingredients and preparation are expensive in every city, including Fresno.
Cracked Pepper is not just good for Fresno, it’s great, and I look forward to eating here again. For the money, I'd rather eat out once a month at Cracked Pepper, than once a week at some chain. I just hope the details in the front of house are attended to with the same passion as the details in the kitchen. Thanks for raising the bar Vatche and keep cooking the risotto properly.