William Rolle, owner of Café Rolle, 5357 H Street, Sacramento, www.caferolle.com, grew up in Lyon as the third generation in a young family of chefs and bakers. His father had a stall in the famed French market, Halle de Lyon, where after four years of culinary school, William learned the family business – smoking salmon and making foie gras.
He followed his grandfather to the United States soon after. “He was in LA, but a customer of my dad’s connected me to a job in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” William said. “There was great cobbler and beans there, but I didn’t last more than one year. That winter was just too much!”
Eventually William made it to Los Angeles where his grandfather was a pastry chef. In the middle of the story, William jumps up toward the kitchen and retrieves a poster-sized photo of an older man in his pastry-chef whites (complete with the tall hat, not made of paper) proudly standing next to an extremely large statue. “This is a 700 pound white chocolate Statue of Liberty he made for Governor Reagan,” William exclaimed.
William eventually ended up settling in Sacramento where an uncle lived. Café Rolle was opened in 2002 and William happily continued the family craft – importing salmon from Norway and Poland to smoke and making homemade foie gras. It was relatively quiet at the cafe tucked away in a small strip mall in east Sacramento until his first Sacramento Bee article.
“I was surprised,” William said. “Two pages in color and it was great – four stars. But it was printed while I was in France visiting my family. Everyone came and I was closed.”
That didn’t stop people from coming and Café Rolle has done a bustling business ever since. At several different stops I made to meet with William, shoot his fresh-looking, casual fare, and, of course, partake myself, it was pretty plain how passionate William was about his food.
Floating around the bustling cafe past the colorful French art and film posters hung edge to edge on the bright yellow wall, William greeted and served customers in a nearly one-man circus show.
“Oui, Oui. Bon appétit,” William sings to customers as he serves his homemade Chicken Pâté that is artfully manicured into perfect triangles laid gently over lush green beds of mesclun and homemade vinaigrette.
I sunk my teeth into a crispy, gooey Hot Brie Sandwich topped with fresh tomato, tarragon mayo, walnuts and fresh greens – adding the caramelized onions for a buck extra added a great nutty, sugary note. I thought I could hear Edith Piaf and smell the Seine.
Last year fellow Sacramento restaurateur and host of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri, spent two full eight hour days on location at Café Rolle. You can watch the resulting video at www.caferolle.com. There you will get a sense of William’s playful nature and the pleasure he takes in cooking.
In 2008, William and La Bonne Soupe’s Daniel Pont were featured in the film, Viva La Food, which was shown that year at the Sacramento French Film Festival and won the 2009 Best of the Best Film Award at the Tucson Slow Food & Film Festival.
Lionel Lucas, known just as Lucas and owner of Plan B Restaurant, 555 La Sierra Drive, Sacramento, www.planbrestaurant.com, also found himself landing in Sacramento by accident. Grown up in Marin County, schooled in San Francisco and summered in France, Lucas attended a culinary and restaurant management school in Nice.
But Lucas’ culinary career really started at age 9. His mom was the president of the French bocce group in Marin. “I was serving at their events,” recalled Lucas. “My dad also worked at Chez Michel in San Francisco where I got a job as a busboy.”
Following culinary school, Lucas spent the next 15 years serving, catering, managing and finally opening big restaurants in San Francisco; most notably the original Il Fornaio that opened in 1989.
In 2004 he was lured to Sacramento to flip a failing restaurant. When the deal fell through, Lucas was left in the lurch having moved his entire family with him. After a few years and a few smaller, solo restaurant endeavors, Lucas opened Plan B Restaurant in April 2009 (the name says it all).
Lucas says he designed Plan B, in the unlikely Arden Town Shopping Center that boasts a Beach Hut Deli, Starbuck’s and Fast Signs, as a family-friendly place. “There are still large families in Europe,” said Lucas. “They get together spontaneously or have their weekly family dinner. That’s what I like to see at my restaurant.”
After a couple of visits the clean, sparse European atmosphere felt like more of an adult family-friendly place, older couples bringing their adult children, but that was fine with me. Lucas assured me he kept any younger children in line with a simple darting stare.
A casual, small meal at the bar brought some simple, fresh and absolutely lovely appetizers and salads. The Butter Salad, the most popular on the menu, offered a refreshing and unique approach that went beyond the over-done blue cheese, candied nuts, and cranberries. Crisp butter lettuce is paired with walnuts and Roquefort and lightly topped with sun-dried cherries and a whole Dijon mustard vinaigrette.
A springy, refreshing rosé complimented the salad as well as the Tomato Tartlette with roasted tomatoes, chevre and basil. The piece de resistance, however, was a side dish of Ratatouille. Perfectly formed for presentation, the soft, herbed vegetables waterfalled when I dove into them and melted in my mouth upon contact.
Whizzing by me at the bar was a constant stream of lamb, filet and the very popular mussels and frites spiced six different ways – from the simple garlic, white wine and parsley to the decadent celery, pancetta, thyme and cream.
It seems that Sacramento is not really such a magnet for French – or European for that matter – natives and their gastronomie as found at Café Rolle and Plan B. I am simply happy that William and Lucas accidentally found their way – and stayed.