Sacramentans, including me, like to talk about how now is the best time ever for the city’s restaurant scene. But the real movement happened roughly a decade ago.
The period from 2006-08 saw the openings of Mulvaney’s B&L, Hawks, Ella Dining Room & Bar and Grange. High end and high profile, this quartet energized the scene, focusing on the farm-to-table concept with which Sacramento later would brand itself. Even more impressive, all survived the Great Recession, indicating local diners’ readiness for the more recent restaurant push tied to the arena’s construction and R Street Corridor’s development.
Of the four forerunners, Hawks – the fine-dining restaurant opened in August 2007 in Granite Bay by married chefs Molly Hawks and Michael Fagnoni – is the one about which I never heard criticism, only praise, from food-savvy friends. This likely was because Hawks is 21 miles from Sacramento, and my Sacramento friends had visited it fewer times than they had closer places, and greater exposure means greater chance something might go awry.
Still, the talk of Hawks had been so uniformly stellar that I envisioned some kind of Valhalla within the Quarry Ponds shopping center on Douglas Boulevard where it sits. My curiosity about it became too great after I first tasted the wonderful food at Sacramento’s Hawks Public House – Fagnoni and Hawks’ more casual Sacramento offshoot – when it opened in late 2015. I made my first visit to the original Hawks at that time, and now have been there a half-dozen times total. Or enough to confirm the place’s reputation is well deserved.
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Perhaps its 10th anniversary should motivate more Sacramentans like me – who never set foot in Granite Bay before I went there to review a restaurant – to experience Hawks’ excellent food and service and lovely setting. My friends who were fans said they would go more often were it not so far away. They wanted to drink with dinner, and were wary of driving that distance.
Understandable. But ride-sharing services exist today where they did not 10 years ago, and there is always the option of choosing to drink one of Hawks’ terrific house-made soft drinks, like the tart sour cherry lime fizz I ordered during a recent, unexpectedly magical lunch.
It was during that lunch that we discovered the best seat in any restaurant in the Sacramento region – a banquette in the furthermost corner of Hawks’ dining room. From it, one gets a full view of the room’s perfectly arranged white table cloths, plush velveteen seating, and dark wood accents that complement the walls’ soothing seafoam color.
Through the dining room’s many windows, one can catch a glimpse of a water-filled quarry and chaparral landscape beyond.
Hawks is romantic, in every sense of the word, with the fresh flowers arranged in a large vase and displayed prominently in the dining room tying in to the floral design of the curtains. This is a place where one could take a date, or Grandma, who remembers when high-end restaurants were pretty and elegant instead of full of hard surfaces and clangy noises.
The flavors were as splendid as the visuals that day. Lucky for me, Hawks’ 10th anniversary, and thus the bulk of my visits there, corresponds with my favorite time of year, tomato and corn seasons. Both are highlighted in Hawks’ corn risotto, for which the kernels and rice are cooked together to achieve an equal, perfect amount of textural resistance. Sauteed cherry tomatoes lend brightness to a sauce of Parmesan and marscarpone.
Tomatoes also graced the bruschetta appetizer, along with chopped wax beans blanched just long enough so they still exhibited a noticeable crunch. Creamy burrata and hard-toasted bread completed a textural adventure enlivened by the swipe of sweet/earthy black garlic accompanying the toast on the plate.
The crispy romano bean starter featured beans fresh, fat and juicy enough to convince us they were good for us despite their light tempura covering and the aioli in which we dipped them.
In the decade since Hawks opened, Fagnoni and Hawks – who moved from the Bay Area after Hawks’ parents retired to Granite Bay – have had three children and opened their Sacramento restaurant. Yet their original venture does not seem to have missed a step.
It might occasionally miss half a step – an overly salty dish here, too much lag time between courses there – but it always recovers.
A few years into reviewing restaurants, I see two- or three-hour dinners at fine-dining establishments like the movies I once reviewed. Any creative venture lasting that long involves too many variables for things to go perfectly. And with a meal, like a movie, how well the experience wraps up counts for a lot. Hawks guarantees a dynamite third act every time because its pastry chef, Misty Greene, is a such a talent.
Her almond panna cotta held the perfect nutty-to-creamy ratio. It was served with an apricot chamomile sorbet and roasted apricots that with the panna cotta created a flavor close to that of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – the most exquisite PB&J you’ve ever tried.
Greene’s tasty, adventurous sweet pea bavarian dessert capped the $80, five-course dinner tasting menu a few weeks ago (tasting menus change often). A fruity 2014 Vietti Cascinetta Moscato d’Asti served as part of the $40 wine pairing exploded the sweet and savory flavors of this dessert made with peas, buttermilk and whipped cream and accompanied by a cucumber sorbet and fresh strawberries.
My companion and I had trouble deciding on the best part of the tasting menu. At the time, I believed it to be the New York steak, for its buttery texture and fatty-salty punch of its bordelaise sauce. But I cannot get over a different course: Maine lobster atop the most perfectly sculpted round of avocado I ever saw or tasted.
The lobster was succulent and spiked by a lively lime vinaigrette, but the smooth, creamy avocado was the star of the dish. It was so beautifully shaped that it seemed as if it came out of a mold. But Hawks chef de cuisine Ed Lopez said the smoothness was simply the result of his careful cutting.
It might be the best example of how Lopez and Fagnoni – executive chef for both Hawks locations – meet their goal of always letting individual ingredients shine. From my visits, I remembered the vibrant taste of tomato, or corn, or meat more than the sauces or gels accompanying them. The pan-roasted trout we ordered during one lunch, its skin crisped, its flesh tender, tasted as if it just came off a campfire. That is, if one happened to be camping with someone who could whip up a nice sauce vierge to go with it.
Fagnoni and Hawks were co-chefs de cuisine at the highly regarded Village Pub in Woodside. Now he is more often in the kitchen and she behind the scenes, heading up the restaurants’ operations.
Fagnoni’s low-key presence and ability to craft dishes that seem classic yet current remind us of Rick Mahan of the Waterboy and OneSpeed. Like Waterboy, Hawks has retained a core group of employees for years – a feat in such a peripatetic industry. Lopez, beverage director Robert Vasquez, service manager Jesse Grinstead and food runner Ricardo Corona all started 10 years ago. That’s a lot of institutional memory, and likely part of the reason there were so few slip-ups on our visits. Though on a few occasions it took too long to get a drink or our next course, the eager staff quickly made for such lapses by nailing service during the rest of the meal.
I would not mention these rare lapses if Hawks did not charge $12 for cocktails and $42 for some entrees – a price level at which service should be flawless. And it was was during a dinner visit in which we were helped by server Marchan Webb, who went above and beyond. She was friendly but did not hover unless we had questions, most of which she could answer from memory. When she did not have an answer, she would consult the kitchen, even though she clearly was busy helping other diners.
A decade in, Hawks remains one of the region’s best restaurants. Could it be the best? Such a designation is as mythical as Valhalla, since restaurants are too diverse to pick a single winner. But factoring in the high quality of both Hawks – in Granite Bay and Sacramento – makes declarations easier. Like this one: “Hawks” is the current No. 1 brand in the region’s restaurant scene.
Hawks (Granite Bay)
5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay. 916-791-6200, www.hawksrestaurant.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour 2:30-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. 5-9 p.m. Sunday. 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (brunch) the second Sunday of the month.
Beverage options: Full bar, craft cocktails and wines by the glass and bottle. Draft and bottled beer.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: A bit higher than the plush surroundings suggest. The crowd at the bar can get pretty boisterous.
Ambiance: Pretty. With its velveteen banquettes, plentiful wood accents and views of a water-filled quarry and surrounding undeveloped landscape, it is a perfect place for a date or special occasion.
Setting, food and service all shine at this 10-year-old fine-dining restaurant.
The New York steak and Maine lobster with avocado (both from the tasting menu a few weeks ago) were divine. The romano-bean beignets, corn risotto and burrata bruschetta all were treats, as was every dessert we tried. Though components in a few dishes were overly salty, they did not ruin the dish. Only the Caesar salad, which lacked flavor dimension beyond its whole anchovies, truly disappointed.
Consistently first-rate, with only a few minor missteps through several visits, and extraordinary service on one visit.
Hawks is expensive, but its five-course tasting menu is reasonably priced at $80, considering the craft involved and high quality of ingredients. Same with the wine pairing for $40. The romano-bean beignets ($10) and burrata bruschetta ($8) are good values.