Cuisine Under Construction

Biba Restaurant endures some neighborly development

Back Article Feb 13, 2013 By Douglas Curley

Biba Restaurant Chef Steve Tosso

Biba Restaurant Chef Steve Tosso

What Biba Caggiano describes as the “bing, bang, bong noises,” began on Jan. 26, 2007. That’s when the building next door to one of the region’s most established destination restaurants was being demolished. What followed was a three-sided, multi-year Sutter Medical Center construction project that continues to this day.

Is the end in sight?

“Yes, Spring of 2011,” says Scott Smith with an audible smirk. “That was the original target date. The current talk is mid-2014. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Smith, Biba Restaurant’s manager, has been dealing with the ever-changing challenges of operating a high-end eatery in the middle of a construction zone complete with sidewalk barricades and traffic cones.

“Not that I’ve been keeping track, but it has been a long and dusty trail,” he says. “First off, it was the total loss of parking for staff and customers. Sutter gave us some parking passes for staff, but it was limited. It also immediately put into play the need for valet parking for customers.”

Again, Smith points out that Sutter Medical — as landlord of the historic Old Tavern building in which Biba is located — generously split the cost of adding the valet service. Still, it costs Biba $4,000 a month.

“You just bite the bullet, and life goes on,” Smith says of the new expenses and the occasional power, gas and water shutdowns that have greatly impacted the restaurant’s lunch business.

Despite the dust and noise, Smith says customers were still “flying in the door” until 2008. And then the triple whammy of being in the middle of a convoluted construction maze, the emergence of several new regional high-end restaurant options and the arrival of the recession began to clobber the Biba bottom line.

“For a period of 18 months in 2008 through 2009, we lost more than $1 million in revenue. That’s a third of our annual sales,” he says. “We were no longer getting our regulars from Roseville and the surrounding foothills. Since people are on the clock during the day, lunch business was dramatically hit.”

But by mid-2009, revenue numbers began to recover. The word around town was that only Biba could survive such an ongoing disruption. The restaurant used email blasts to get the world out to its large, loyal group of followers “that the door is still open and always will be.”

Once the dust settles, Smith believes Biba will be incredibly well positioned to reap the benefits of its new location in the middle of the Sutter Medical Center campus.

“We’ll have family and friends visiting the new cardiac and birthing centers during the day, which should help our lunches,” he says. “But more importantly, will be the relocation of the B Street Theatre to Sutter space less than a block away. That should have a very positive impact on dinner business for restaurants throughout the neighborhood.”

Through this period of dust, plumbing interruptions and workers in Hazmat suits using shop vacs, Caggiano has maintained an optimistic and grateful disposition.

“People still come here. When they see me, I ask them, ‘Why do you come in the middle of this mess?’ They give me a hug and say, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’ I feel very fortunate to have such friends.”

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For four years, Steve Tosso has served as chef at Sacramento’s 26-year-old ristorante Italiano institution. And while he enjoys the opportunity, location and atmosphere, he’s the first to admit it’s no easy task to work for a living legend.

“Biba is internationally renowned and nationally acclaimed, so I’m very aware of who is looking over my shoulder and the standard I have to live up to,” he says.

Not so, says Caggiano.

“Steve is a tremendous young chef with good ideas and an eye and mind for mixing fresh ingredients with great food ideas.”

Although Chef Tosso has no formal culinary training, Caggiano notes he was raised in the Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma County and worked under some of the best chefs in St. Helena.

“The best way to train is to get into a kitchen and work with someone good,” she says.

For his part, Tosso says Caggiano has provided him with the ultimate opportunity to prepare and present the best Italian dishes from her native Emilia-Romagna region.

“She allows me to order the best of the best, white truffles from Italy, Sonoma duck, locally farmed beets and regionally raised rabbit. It’s pretty incredible.”

In mid-January, Tosso unveiled the Biba winter menu. Three courses he highly recommends, along with wine pairings, include:

Dungeness crab cakes with blood oranges, shaved fennel and arugula. Paired with Buttonwood 2011 Zingy Sauvignon Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley.

Beet ravioli with locally grown beets, pasta, parmesan and a very delicate butter sauce. Paired with Amador County’s Noceto 2009 Sangiovese.

Braised, slowly cooked local rabbit with grilled polenta, braised fennel and carrots, and San Marzano tomatoes. Paired with Scott Harvey 2010 Amador County Barbera.

 


 

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