Carla Meyer

Dining review: Hock Farm tries too hard to tap into local food trend

It is tempting to be cynical when it comes to Hock Farm Craft & Provisions. The name, for one thing, came out of nowhere to be the coolest restaurant name ever.

It's practically poetic, even if it takes a moment or two to figure out what it actually means.

To wit, Hock Farm Craft & Provisions is not an online outlet for yuppie gardeners sourcing trowels and hoes made of hand-forged boron; it's not a storefront for cowgirl scrapbooking; it doesn't sell compasses, saddle soap and gold panning kits to would-be prospectors. Got those ugly, cracked gardener's hands? There's no Bag Balm on site.

Hock Farm, a tribute to the farm John Sutter founded in 1841, is an urban restaurant and bar dreamed up by the Paragary Restaurant Group. It inherits the space once occupied by its under-performing Spataro and is the latest in a long line of ideas from the powerhouses that brought you Paragary's Bar and Oven, Centro, Cafe Bernardo, Esquire Grill and several other hits and misses.

As Sacramento continues to bolster its "farm-to-fork" credentials with a full-fledged regional marketing campaign, Randy Paragary and company seem to be using Hock Farm to proclaim, "Wait a minute, we've been doing the farm-to-fork thing in Sacramento since Patrick Mulvaney was knee-high to a suckling pig."

As a name, it's a mouthful. As a concept – farm to table – it's very now, if not a little obvious, self-serious and packaged.

And as a working restaurant close to some of the best eateries we've got, it's in for a knock-down, drag-out just to keep up with farm-forward big guns such as Mulvaney's, Magpie, Waterboy, Ella, Grange, Enotria, Hawks and, yes, Kru, let alone underappreciated creative forces such as Bacon and Butter or a distinctive and evolving restaurant like The Porch.

My early tasting tours of the menu over several visits for lunch and dinner turned up roasted chicken with seasonal vegetables; pan-roasted salmon with creamed corn; flatiron steak with heirloom tomatoes and charred corn; mac and cheese.

Pssst! Are you still awake?

Alas, the cooking was mostly spot-on, even if some of the technique, like most of the fish-in-a-pan preparations, was rudimentary and didn't show the seafood at its very best.

The ingredients were fresh, colorful, often beautiful and all-around excellent. The seasonings were mostly safe, if not bland. But more than anything, the thinking behind the food was so straightforward that it was practically somnambulant.

And when the menu veered toward edgy and potentially entertaining – a pork belly dish with fried green tomatoes or duck confit served with pork sausage – we were distracted by execution that was alarmingly askew. The pork belly was simply underwhelming and a little tough, unlike exceptional – and mouthwatering – pork belly we've had so often from the competition. The duck was tender and tasty, but the sausage was so incredibly salty it was inedible. It left us gasping for provisions – like Gatorade and fresh air.

Sometimes, we felt like we were punched in the nose with seasonality. There were peaches on pizza – and they were delicious. There were peaches on our heirloom tomato salad (and really, they overwhelmed the dish and blotted out the potential to love the tomatoes). OK, we get it, you've got peaches. From a farm.

Farm-to-table is an ethos, a way of thinking and doing business, of connecting with real farmers and doing things the right way.

It's not a concept. If anything, it's a starting point. At Hock Farm, based on the solid but underwhelming fare and the unexceptional vision, farm-to-table seems to be the only point. We expect much more than that, either with technique, flavor profiles or outright creativity.

At Hock Farm, in lieu of all that, they include a very basic map on the back of the menu, just in case two lovebirds out on a romantic date or eight power brokers gathered for dinner and drinks want to know where their roasted beets and cherry tomatoes come from.

There is nothing appalling or offensive about what's going on here. There is certainly room to grow. But right now, the food doesn't have an identity that distinguishes it or creates a sense of excitement. You'll likely be content eating at Hock Farm, but it's hard to imagine you'll be surprised, inspired or delighted.

So far, I don't get a sense of the passion. I don't see any soul. I see simple and easy and straight-arrow.

Beyond the name, the food shows absolutely no meaningful connection to Hock Farm, whether earnest or witty. It's a concept masquerading as a vision that has no real gravitas.

The more I visited Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, the more I felt like I had already seen this place and this modus operandi.

In fact, I think I reviewed the same restaurant a few months back – it was in Roseville and was called Paul Martin's American Bistro. Only there, the service was more polished, more energetic and more knowledgeable.

Yes, beyond the ho-hum food, the service here falls far short of the competition, too. When I ordered a Ruhstaller Gilt Edge, I got a blank stare from our friendly server, who then asked, "Is that a beer?"

On other occasions, our questions about the cooking or the sourcing – I was curious about the "local halibut" – were met with bewilderment.

The service needs to be better trained, better connected to what's happening in the kitchen, better versed in the restaurant's mission and, more than anything, more connected to the idea of being a polished and professional waiter. At this level of dining, the service lags significantly behind the competition.

The room itself is a significant reworking of Spataro. It's more open, more contemporary, more eclectic, far noisier and a bit more generic. Other than the porcelain pendant lamps designed by local craftsman Brian Schmitt, I saw little that distinguished the space from a generic urban restaurant in Anywhere, U.S.A.

The trendy use of exposed plywood for the booths is more awkward than stylish, largely because the wood has a chintzy veneer.

And how does one explain the arrow motif adorning the walls?

Let's upgrade – or jettison – those kinds of provisions.

Hock Farm Craft & Provisions

1415 L St., Sacramento

(916) 440-8888

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday

Beverage options: Creative take on craft cocktails; midsize wine list with a balance of styles and prices; small craft beer list.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes. Vegetables are a standout.

Noise level: Loud to very loud, though table conversation is mostly manageable.

Overall: Two 1/2 stars

You'll be impressed by the new decor, the urban feel of the place and the quality of the ingredients, but you may be left wondering what new dimension Hock Farm brings to our dining scene. The food is straightforward, the service is not as sharp as the competition, and the overall "concept" – farm to table – is a restaurant fundamental, not a concept.

Food : Two 1/2 stars

The vegetables are a strong suit here. On the plate, they're rustic, wonderfully seasoned and delicious. The overall eating experience, however, is often basic, if not underwhelming, with a roast chicken, basic steak, salmon or pasta dish leading the way. Quality product, boring execution. Desserts need rethinking. The strawberry-rhubarb cobbler was amazingly bad – a giant biscuit dominating a skimpy amount of fruit.

Service: Two stars

At a restaurant in this category, we expect more knowledge of the food, better table maintenance, more energy.

Ambiance: Two 1/2 stars

There's a modicum of style here, but the largely generic, modern room doesn't really connect us to John Sutter's 19th-century Hock Farm, suggesting it's an idea lacking depth.

Value: Two 1/2 stars

The portions are a fair size and the prices seem right, with most meat and seafood dishes priced in the low 20s. Some of the "bites" may be too skimpy to bother with.

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.