Sacramento often measures the vibrancy of its restaurant scene in relation to San Francisco and Napa Valley – and by how much time Sacramento chefs or sommeliers spent in those culinary hubs before arriving here.
Yet the strongest recent indicator of Sacramento’s relevance comes not from either of those places, but from Placer County, in acclaimed Granite Bay fine-dining restaurant Hawks’ expansion into Sacramento with the 3-month-old Hawks Public House.
Hawks executive chef and co-owner Michael Fagnoni said he and his wife, fellow chef Molly Hawks, opened the gastropub and Hawks Provisions, the to-go breakfast and lunch spot that sits beside it on Alhambra Boulevard, partly to be closer to the action.
He said Hawks, separated from Sacramento by 21 miles and I-80 traffic, often was forgotten when local publications compiled 10-best lists. He and Molly Hawks wanted to be “part of the community,” Fagnoni said. “We wanted a fun restaurant down here. A place for other chefs to come after work.”
There can be no greater argument for the growing stature of Sacramento’s food community than the owners of Hawks, which has maintained one of the most sterling reputations in the region since it opened in 2007, wanting to be nearer to it.
Sacramentans, whether chefs or not, should be pleased Fagnoni and Hawks came our way, especially since they have arrived bearing impressive gifts. The culinary expertise and assured execution that are Hawks’ hallmarks made the trip to Sacramento intact. So did seamlessly efficient service.
The 56-seat Public House is neither as plush nor hushed as its 90-seat mothership. Things can get loud and/or a touch cramped in the mostly walk-in gastropub (reservations are available for parties of six or more), which has drawn crowds since it opened in December.
But the small-plate-focused Sacramento restaurant is more affordable than its Granite Bay counterpart, and elegant in its own way. Designer Aimee Griffin, with guidance from Molly Hawks (who works at the operational level now as what Fagnoni calls “the brains” of the Hawks group), created a gastropub with urban flair within a suburban strip-mall-esque Mediterranean-style new-ish building. The building’s design, meant to evoke the Moorish style of the late, lamented Alhambra Theatre, follows guidelines for the neighborhood, Fagnoni said.
Public House holds concrete floors, a zinc bar and bar stools with Steampunk-esque mechanical-looking metal bases. But its more self-consciously “vintage” elements blend into a sophisticated, contemporary whole.
Sunlight suffuses the restaurant via several picture windows. Cushy rose-colored booths (which arrived post-opening and have helped absorb some crowd noise) further warm up the space visually before the smell of wood smoke from the semi-open kitchen’s almond-fired grill wraps one in its olfactory embrace.
The dinner menu, composed mostly of snacks ($5-$12) and appetizers ($10-$14 and including salads), looks deceptively limited. Deceptive because it’s always a one-sheet but forever changing. Ingredients and whole dishes shift with the seasons. There are always three pastas, for instance, but not the same three.
The roasted sunchokes we tried a few weeks ago showcased the sweet juiciness within the gnarled crone of the root-vegetable world. They’ve since left the menu, to make room for more of-the-moment appetizers such as chilled asparagus salad.
I haven’t tried the asparagus salad, but I bet it’s good. Fagnoni and Public House chef de cuisine Justin Green instill that kind of confidence in diners with dishes that highlight the essential appeal of the ingredients therein, whether those ingredients are unpeeled carrots or pork shoulder put through a grinder.
The intact skin adds earthiness to the heirloom carrot appetizer, with the dish’s spiced-yogurt component further offsetting the usual carrot sweetness with a touch of sourness.
The excellent grilled calamari, listed under “snacks,” holds tender squid – cooked quickly on a very hot grill – fennel and cucumber, all of which soak up the lemon juice and olive oil with which the dish is seasoned. Calabrian oregano lends sweet and bitter end notes.
Though the $10 carrots and $8 calamari stretch themselves to reach several spots apiece on the flavor spectrum, each dish is too modest in size to ever hit the spot, alone or in tandem. One could potentially fill up by adding the exceptionally fresh garlic hummus, for $5 more.
Or go for something meatier. Public House economically favors those whose jam is pork- or liver-based, and spread on grilled bread. Fagnoni, known in Granite Bay for his patés and terrines, here serves them individually rather than as part of a big charcuterie board. Each would be hearty enough, when combined with the carrots or calamari, to compose a meal.
The liverwurst ($7), made from pork, duck livers, white wine and bacon, offers enough hits of salt and fat to satisfy. That is, until one tastes the ciccioli ($7), which is made from braised pork and takes the same flavor intensity evident in the liverwurst delightfully over the top. An accompanying sour-cherry mostarda, made with mustard seeds and dried Montmorency cherries rehydrated in port and sugar, offers enough spicy power to briefly steal the spotlight before the ciccioli’s rich flavors win out.
Public House, which also shows a fondness for frisée, employs the bitter and sour judiciously. Grilled broccoli rabe served with the house-made pork-sausage entree made the sausage sweeter by comparison. Taken on its own, the sausage tastes fresh and more prominently of pork and seasoning (coriander, caraway, white wine, garlic) than salt or fat, thus demonstrating the kitchen’s versatility within the forcemeat realm.
Public House entrees top out at $28, or about $16 less than they do in Granite Bay. The sausage entree costs $20. The Passmore Ranch red trout, the flesh of which was wonderfully tender and the skin perfectly crisped, arrives in an ample portion, for $26.
But for the best representation of the kitchen’s formidable skills, at a reasonable price, go for a series of small plates instead. Then order the $11 half-serving of spaghetti. Though this dish comes with various accompaniments depending on season, its appeal is timeless, in that it lay in the textural intrigue within house-made, consistently al dente noodles.
Then go with a $6 New Helvetia or Bike Dog draft beer, or $5 half-glass of wine (Hawks offers wine by the half-glass, glass and bottle), instead of craft cocktails priced at a spendy $10-$14.
Or drop a “snack” and do try a cocktail, because they, like the food, show Public House’s affinity for balancing flavors. For example, the “Stockton Griffon,” with 1776 Rye, chocolate bitters and vanilla, offers depth and spark in a single drink. The frothy Peregrine blood-orange daiquiri dazzled as well.
Blood-orange juice also factors, in a mix with soda and tarragon, on Hawks’ impressive nonalcoholic-drink menu. How a restaurant treats its soft drinks – whether it puts thought into them or sticks to the usual Diet Coke and iced tea – can be a key indicator of overall quality. The craft evident in Public House’s soft drinks underscores the restaurant’s attention to detail.
So does Public House’s service, which is fine-dining level despite the more casual atmosphere. Servers replace utensils and plates often and check back to see if everything is all right. Lacy, our server on one dinner visit, was particularly on the ball.
Service never faltered on our three visits, though the food did, on our only lunch visit.
Though the “six-minute” egg served on the kale Caesar was nice and creamy, the salad’s dressing lacked sufficient kick. The flavors of Public House’s Wagyu burger, which comes with Gruyere cheese and caramelized onions, also proved too mild, as much as we wanted to get on board with house-ground beef, a house-baked brioche bun and other obviously high-quality ingredients. And the pasta in the gnocchetti with duck ragu was too al dente, bordering on hard.
Yet this visit also introduced us to Public House’s wonderful French onion dip with house-made chips, which for $6 transported us back to childhood. Or at least a fantasy childhood in which our mothers did not make dips from soup mix.
Space can get tight at Public House, where the bar crowd sometimes spills toward tables in the middle of the room. But one can come up with a seating strategy as easily as a cost-effective dining strategy. We, for example, showed up at 5 p.m. on a Thursday and had no problem snagging a booth for four.
Early-bird it. Go on a Monday night. The only unacceptable option is not going at all. Not when Fagnoni and Hawks have so graciously done most of the work for us, by placing their extraordinary skill sets in closer proximity to Sacramento.
Hawks Public House
1525 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento, www.hawkspublichouse.com, 916-588-4440
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. To-go spot Hawks Provisions, next door, is open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Beverage options: Craft cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks. Six draft beers. Bottled beers. Compact list of wines available by the half-glass, glass and bottle.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Ambiance: The gastropub’s design is starker than at the lovely, romantic Granite Bay Hawks, but it’s also stylish and sophisticated, with rose-colored banquettes visually warming up the place before the welcoming smell of wood smoke, from the almond-fired grill, completes the effect. The small space can get loud and feel a bit crowded.
Overall ☆☆☆ 1/2
The culinary expertise and great service that are hallmarks of the Granite Bay Hawks made the trip to Sacramento intact.
Food ☆☆☆ 1/2
Consistently good, with executive chef Michael Fagnoni and chef de cuisine Justin Green showing a keen ability to highlight essential flavors of high-quality ingredients. Flavors faltered a bit on one of our review visits, at lunch.
Truly exemplary. Though the setting is more casual than at Granite Bay, service remains fine-dining level.
Public House is not a bargain. But small plates do not cost a lot individually, and if combined wisely, can provide a filling meal for a reasonable price.