Carla Meyer

Dining review: Sacramento's Hook & Ladder hits high culinary marks

The first time we dined here in late September, Hook & Ladder had been open for just a few days.

The great potential, yes, it was there. You could sense that it wanted to be a very good – and very Sacramento – restaurant and bar. It was all going to make sense.

But when? Not that night. The food took too long to arrive. Our pork tenderloin and fish were overcooked. The dining room, with music blaring, seemed more like a club. We left feeling a bit bewildered, our ears ringing as we strolled home.

Looking back, that harried encounter was instructive, for rarely have we seen a new restaurant sort things out faster and move forward with such poise and confidence.

In short order, rustic-meets-elegant Hook & Ladder has developed an identity, found a wonderful balance of casual and sophisticated elements, and announced itself as something quintessentially Sacramento.

Battered and bewildered? Hardly. Now we're hooked on Hook & Ladder.

Whether settling in for a dinner, dropping by for drinks or digging in for a laid-back and delicious brunch, our encounters these days are an inspiration. For a serious restaurant, Hook & Ladder attracts a younger demographic, but it's also an eclectic one, and those over 40 will feel just as welcome. Gay, straight, middle-aged professional or evolving hipster, it's a room for everyone but the uptight and uninspired.

Hook & Ladder is brought to you by Kimio Bazett and Jon Modrow, the folks behind the Golden Bear, a charming midtown bar with a tiny kitchen. Two years ago, it exploded onto a larger – and maybe stranger – stage when it was featured on the TV show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

When the midtown restaurant Hangar 17 closed two years ago, Bazett and Modrow moved forward with plans to build on the success of their K Street joint.

They put together a team of smart folks, including two new designers on the local scene, Whitney Johnson and Tina Ross, who came up with the name Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. through their research of Sacramento's history (in 1850, the volunteer-run Mutual Hook & Ladder Co. became the first fire company in the state).

The style of the room is 19th century Sacramento meets the 21st century, with wood elements and hard surfaces softened by fresh flowers, subtle colors and modern, largely instrumental music. Draperies on the ceiling help absorb the noise.

When we returned to Hook & Ladder for a second visit, it was with baby steps. We ordered pizza – something simple – and we weren't expecting much. Restaurants that shoehorn pizza onto their menus usually aren't devoted to the craft. But these thin-crust pies were excellent. Creamy-cool and fresh burrata with San Marzano tomatoes on one pie; housemade Calabrian sausage with roasted artichokes and arugula on another; rock shrimp with olives, fennel and an eyebrow-raising sardine bagna cauda on a third.

So far, executive chef Brian Mizner has managed to fly under the radar, but that anonymity is about to end. With his impressive background, culinary skills and season-shifting menus, Mizner is destined to become a household name to discerning restaurant-goers.

The chef got here the old-fashioned way. At 15, he started at a family-owned Italian restaurant, Papa Gianni's in Cameron Park, his hometown. Within a few years, he knew all the recipes and techniques, and was pretty much running the place by 21. He did another five-year stint at City Treasure in midtown, showing up for a job interview and, within minutes, jumping on the line to start cooking.

By age 26, he had worked his way up to chef when the owner sold the place, soon to become Crepeville. Then he went to Masque in El Dorado Hills, which Esquire magazine listed in 2004 as one of America's best new restaurants. Under masterful executive chef Angelo Auriana, Mizner rose through the ranks to become chef de cuisine in what could only be described as a world-class kitchen.

So when you lift a fork of housemade pasta at Hook & Ladder – such as the hand-crafted linguine made with roasted beets, or cavatelli with roasted yellow pepper pesto, crayfish and watercress – you're tasting a direct link to the very dishes that Esquire's John Mariani and many others raved about years ago.

But Mizner doesn't rely solely on his Italian repertoire. The menu is by design all over the map – a sampling of what the chef has seen and tasted and enjoyed throughout the region.

His Sacramento palate is about farms, freshness and flavors of all kinds. Indeed, in Mizner we see flashes of Mark Helms at Juno's, Rick Mahan at Waterboy and OneSpeed, and Patrick Mulvaney at his eponymous farm-to-table treasure on 19th Street.

A fresh and lively avocado and orange salad with butter lettuce and smoky garbanzo beans is Mizner's simple statement about the bounty of our local farms. The larger, bolder salad of salty pancetta with a poached duck egg over frisee and radicchio shows a chef devoted to lively, even intense flavors, beautiful balance and the offsetting textures of crunchy produce and the creaminess of an egg yolk that, once pierced, promises to ooze with decadent delight throughout the dish.

His entrees don't disappoint, from the quality of the cooking to the prices. The most expensive dish is the lamb T-bone ($26) with an array of root vegetables and mixed-bean succotash. We've paid $15 more at restaurants where the lamb wasn't nearly this good.

The roasted half chicken, served with baby carrots, turnips, beets or parsnips, is $16. It's big, tender, juicy and delicious.

The bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with Gorgonzola gnocchi and very flavorful and gently bitter braised greens was a perfect dish, and a world away from the overcooked, dried-out leather moccasin we choked down that first visit.

We also loved the seared day-boat scallops with Meyer lemon risotto, a dish that showed skill, restraint and more of that wonderful balance of subtle and bold, tender and toothsome.

Then there's the burger, which is $13. For that price, we expect an eating experience worth bragging about. Mizner lets his cooks go to town with the burger, encouraging them to change it up daily. Most recently, I had a spicy version, complete with jalapeños, that reminded me of my favorite dive burger cooked behind the burglar bars at Scott's Burger Shack on Franklin Boulevard.

We loved the brunch, too, where the demographic expanded to include kids hanging with parents, and the prices are all the better. Most dishes range from $9 to $14, and the portions are generous.

The imposing crispy pork quesadilla was pretty incredible, served with habanero Jack cheese, fried eggs, pickled onions, guacamole, black beans and charred tomato salsa. Beyond the great flavors, the portion was enough to set us off into a deep Sunday afternoon slumber.

A little side dish – a witty, modern take on pommes Anna – was incredible: layers of thin-cut potatoes served in cubes that were crunchy, light, amazingly good. The only minor shortcoming we found on Sunday morning was the housemade granola. It was a little chewy and bland.

While we're assessing Hook & Ladder mostly on its merits as a restaurant, the bar scene is equally impressive. Overseen by the enterprising Chris Tucker, the bar boasts plenty of inventive craft cocktails and several "draft cocktails" – signature mixed drinks pre-made in batches.

My West Indies Sour smelled as if I was kickin' it at an old-school barber shop, and there was a sophisticated melding of flavors thanks to the combination of sour brandy, a rum-based liqueur flavored with allspice, lime juice, red wine and simple syrup. That's not your grandpa's rum swizzler.

The compact wine list, while thoughtfully compiled with labels both familiar and uncommon from California and beyond, seemed a tad expensive compared with the food. It would be nice to find a few $6 glasses of wine instead of $10.25 and $12.25, for instance, to go with my $16 chicken or $9 frito misto.

The craft beer list is solid, too, though perhaps not as local as it could be, led by Berryessa Brewing's California Common and a new favorite of mine, the Ballast Point Sculpin India Pale Ale. For those who have given up on life or couldn't find an Olive Garden in midtown, there's Bud Light in a can.

When we look at how good Hook & Ladder is already, and when we take stock of the talent and determination fueling the effort, it's easy to see how this restaurant will climb still higher. Soon rather than later, it could be up there with the best in the city.

Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Company

1630 S St., Sacramento

(916) 442-4885

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar

Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Overall Three 1/2 stars(out of 4 stars)

In just five months, the talented folks behind Hook & Ladder have created something very special, a new breed of restaurant that pays homage to city's past while showing so much promise for what lies ahead. The potential is there for this place to be one of the top food and drink experiences in town.

Food Three 1/2 stars

Executive chef Brian Mizner has created an eclectic New American cuisine that showcases much that is special about Sacramento. Housemade pastas, artisan pizzas, small plates and a variety of thoughtfully created entrees are all first-rate. Don't miss the roasted beet linguine, cavatelli with roasted pepper pesto and crayfish, the pizza with rock shrimp and sardine bagna cauda, the gourmet burger, the bananas Foster bread pudding, and for brunch, the crispy pork quesadilla and the amazing little side dish pommes Anna.

Service Three 1/2 stars

Smart and attentive, the servers here demonstrate their professionalism without coming off as stuffy. That's the right balance for a serious restaurant that has a casual vibe. At least two of the servers we encountered were exceptional.

Ambience Three stars

Remains a work in progress. The lighting at some of the tables up front is too dim, making it hard to read the menu. I'm told that is already being addressed. The room has an appealing energy and sense of style, with a thoughtful mix of rustic and modern touches.

Value Three 1/2 stars

Pizzas and pastas are $13 to $15, main dishes are $13 to $26, and most brunch dishes are $8 to $14. For the quality of the cooking and service, the prices are very good.

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