by Allen Pierleoni, Sacramento Bee, February 4, 2015


Lunch pal Bruce Parks and I pulled into the parking lot of Stones Gambling Hall, which opened in July, calling itself “the new deal in town.” It looks like another office building from the outside, except for the bright “Casino” sign out front.

Bruce is indifferent about gambling, but he does care a lot about food. In past years, he and wife-chef Judy Parks ran the Tarts & Truffles bakery-cafe. Later, they established an online international gourmet cake-delivery business and an online bakery.

Our destination was Sammy’s, the restaurant inside Stones. Would it be a figurative house of cards like so many other shaky cardroom eateries – serving afterthought grub to tired gamblers in need of a quick bite between losing hands? Or would we pull a straight flush?

We got lucky and walked into a class act, a destination restaurant set in a 25,000-square-foot aesthetically pleasing space with tall ceilings, hardwood floors, bell-shaped chandeliers, overhead fans, quiet background music and a level of staff professionalism not seen often enough in the service industry. It felt like a private club, and we didn’t want to leave.

“They sank a bundle into this place,” Bruce said as we went on walkabout, figuring out the demographic in the cardroom. With the exception of one woman in the poker room, it was all men, ages 20s to 60s.

Behind a wall of clear glass and sliding doors is the Saloon poker room with 17 10-person tables that host no-limit Texas hold ’em (tournaments are Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays). In the main room, the Card Tavern offers blackjack, baccarat, pai gow and other games. Farther along is a beautiful full bar and open kitchen, a wood-burning oven and banks of booths and tables that is Sammy’s.

“You know what this is?” Bruce said with a laugh. “It’s a giant man cave.” Later, he made that remark to one of our servers. “It absolutely is,” she replied.

We later learned that Sammy’s is one of 17 units in the Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill chain (as well as outlets in two airports). It was founded by veteran restaurateur Sami Ladeki in La Jolla in 1989 and spread throughout Southern California and Nevada. Its trademark is “globally inspired, locally produced.” Though two Sammy’s are in Las Vegas, this restaurant is the only one positioned literally inside a casino, and the only one in Northern California.

We lounged in a spacious, comfortable booth, watched sports on the big TVs over the bar, and looked at the well-organized menu ($2.50 to $28) of soups (lobster bisque), salads (spicy Thai grilled chicken), tapas (baba ghanoush), tacos-burgers-wraps (Wagyu cheeseburger, mahi tacos), 10 wood-fired pizzas (garlic shrimp), Asian dishes (roast duck wonton soup) and specialties (cioppino, braised lamb shank). The breakfast items looked solid, too.

Bruce ordered iced tea, I went for the only really tasty Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) I’ve ever encountered. Both were delivered in carafes with glasses full of ice. The wine list is well-rounded, and with a sense of humor. One of the quotes printed on it is credited to economist-journalist John Maynard Keynes: “My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink enough champagne.” Among the artisanal cocktails is the Royal – bourbon, Benedictine, absinthe rinse and orange bitters with brandied cherries.

I read a passage from the “Responsible Gambling Guidelines” flyer, available at the front desk: “Understand that you’ll probably lose, and accept the loss as part of the game.” Good to know the state Office of Problem Gambling is so encouraging.

Soon, alternating servers began delivering plates to the booth. Mini duck tacos were a revelation of flavor and texture, crisp morsels contrasted by the soft feta sprinkle on top and the bed of creamy, tangy kefir cheese beneath. The meaty, tender pork dumplings (finally, a dish served with enough cilantro) would be at home on a dim-sum menu. Was that a background of ginger we tasted? We dipped them in chili-ponzu (citrus) sauce.

Pieces of fresh-tasting “salt and pepper” mahi were wokked with jalapeño peppers, and strips of onion and red and green bell pepper, in such volume they nearly overwhelmed the fish. Adding flavor were ginger, garlic and five-spice salt.

The crispy-chewy crust of the New York-style pizza left the oak-fired oven with just the right char, and was loaded with mushrooms, pepperoni, salami and Italian sausage. We added house-made pesto sauce to the house-made tomato sauce. The pie is among the best we’ve found.

The show-stopper was the chicken breast, blazed in that same wood-burning oven, served with fingerling potatoes, al dente asparagus, tomatoes and basil pesto punctuated with whole pine nuts. The chicken (two breasts, actually) had been steeped in balsamic-vinegar marinade and seasoned with “a closely guarded blend” of herbs and spices, said assistant manager Joe Engle later. The dark-skinned, moist and tender fowl delivered a fusillade of flavors.

We couldn’t decide whether to taste the house-specialty “messy sundae” or not. We’d heard it’s a tall, fluted parfait glass full of vanilla ice cream and overflowing with an avalanche of hot fudge and gobs of whipped cream and nuts.

As we were in a casino, we decided to cut a virtual deck of cards to decide. We soon agreed the dessert is well-named.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.