First Impressions: Hook & Ladder; Lei's Kitchen

10/28/2012 12:00 AM

10/26/2012 2:21 PM

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at

Hook & Ladder

1630 S St., Sacramento

What happens when a brand new, hotly anticipated restaurant with a cool name in a good location opens for business? It's a Friday night. Weather: perfect. The city: hopping.

That's right, nearly everyone and his mother descended upon this new food and drink establishment all at once.

It was lively, loud, exciting and a bit chaotic and confusing. And, for better or worse, it was too much too soon.

We dropped by after Hook & Ladder had been open for all of a week. This was not the occasion for a full-fledged review, but rather a chance to share what we saw, explain what it's all about and, yes, applaud the owners for trying something out of the ordinary.

Brought to you by the same folks who made the Golden Bear a midtown institution over the past decade, Hook & Ladder climbs several rungs higher as it seeks to meld the exuberance of a lively bar scene with the sophistication of fine dining in a casual setting with superior service. It inherits the space once occupied by Hangar 17.

Sure, there was an element of excitement to Hook & Ladder, what with so many folks clamoring to come in for a dinner, drinks or some combination. But the major timing issues with the kitchen bogged down the evening.

The setting, the vibe, the concept, the menu, the feel of the place, the service, the prices – these elements have to mesh just the right way for Hook & Ladder to distinguish itself from the competition.

Fortunately for us, we were situated at a table that gave us some perspective on what patrons expected.

It was quite the gamut: one middle-aged man came out frowning, insisting he could not enjoy a meal when the music was so loud; another dude, 25 years his junior, walked in and exclaimed, "I just want to get drunk."

These two folks provided a valuable cross-section, for it turns out Hook & Ladder is probably not the place for either. The target audience is somewhere in between: people who like a bar scene with creative cocktails in a setting that's full of energy, and folks who appreciate – and are willing to pay for – high-caliber cooking and good service but without being stuffy and stiff and predictable.

Were they going to nail the concept and the execution already? Not completely. Were they going to confuse people? Of course.

"This was our first full weekend we've been opened, and we were pretty slammed," co-owner Kimeo Bazett told me by phone.

Bazett and business partner Jon Modrow built their reputations at the Golden Bear, which was once featured on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

Hook & Ladder is anything but a dive.

Our dinner had the potential to be a delight, but the kitchen was apparently overwhelmed and our food took far too long to arrive, punctuated by several apologies from our earnest server. The sea bass was pan-seared and came with a seafood risotto, which was delicious – but the fish was overcooked and too tough. The pork tenderloin with Gorgonzola gnocchi was equally overcooked and a bit dry, though the flavors were certainly there. We did better with our starters – an intensely flavored duck confit tostada with pineapple salsa, and a rich, nicely seasoned tomato soup.

But here's a potentially serious concern regarding kitchen and server training. When we ordered the pork, we asked how the chef preferred to cook it. Our server suggested it would be best at medium-well. I can imagine the supplier of that pork would go apoplectic if he heard that. This high-quality product eats best at medium-rare and is tolerable at medium. At medium-well, it becomes a paperweight.

Hook & Ladder serves lunch and as of today offers brunch. Its thoughtfully eclectic wine selection includes a large number by the glass. We'll return soon to try the cocktails and will ride bikes to Hook & Ladder, as parking in the area is a challenge. Bike racks out front would be appreciated.

As the restaurant and bar settle in, Bazett envisions a destination that can be the best of both worlds – an enriching place to dine that can also be a great bar for those who want to stay and party. I think he's headed in the right direction.

Lei's Kitchen

701 J St., Sacramento

Lei's Kitchen, a new restaurant downtown, wants to extend its reach, too. By morning, it is serving American-style breakfasts. After that, it cooks up some impressive Chinese food. The ingredients were fresh, the cooking skillful and the array of flavors nicely realized.

You can eat at the counter or settle in at a table. The restaurant is also connected in the back to a bar, in case you want to follow your toast and eggs with a few drinks before settling into your day.

On the night we visited, our server was exceptionally friendly and whoever was back in the kitchen knew what he was doing. All of the dishes we tried were under $10, including chicken chow mein, Mongolian beef and black bean sauce with chicken. For those who live or work downtown, this is a new food option worth checking out for breakfast, lunch or dinner.


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