On Tuesday night, my husband and I met friends for dinner at Hawks Public House in East Sacramento. It was our first time dining indoors since the pandemic began more than a year ago. And boy, did it feel good.
After a year of cooking at home and eating a whole lot of takeout, it was great to enjoy a delicious meal that was thoughtfully conceived, beautifully prepared and lovingly served. The next morning, I called Hawks head chef Derek Sawyer to find out a little bit more about our dinner. For starters while we sipped our wine (a Grgich Hills 2018 chardonnay, recommended by the restaurant’s sommelier), we ordered almond wood grilled Spanish pulpo and Szechuan glazed pork belly. “That’s one of my favorite dishes on the menu right now,” Sawyer said of the pulpo, which is Spanish for octopus. He braises octopus tentacles in red wine, grills them over almond wood, then cuts them into chunks before tossing them in an herbaceous persillade sauce. The pulpo is served on a puddle of duck fat orange sauce along with marinated chickpeas, preserved kumquats (made last year with fruit from Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle), dehydrated malt vinegar and dill, and Spanish romesco sauce.
The pork belly appetizer takes four days to prepare, Sawyer says. He starts by curing a whole fresh Niman Ranch pork belly in brown sugar and salt for two days, then smoking it on day three. On the fourth day, it’s portioned into chunks and finished on the almond wood grill, then coated in hoisin sauce and broiled until the meat is sweet and caramelized. Sawyer serves the tender hunks of meat in a casserole dish with a lovely lemon broth made with house-made chili-garlic sauce and fermented habanero sauce (also made in-house). To counterbalance the fattiness of the pork, he adds braised dino kale from Azolla Farm and tops the dish with pickled shallots.
For our main course, I ordered lobster fra diavolo and my husband, the Public House burger. Lobster fra diavolo (translation: brother devil’s lobster) is a pasta dish with lobster and, traditionally, a spicy tomato sauce. But Hawks’ version is a creamy, nuanced affair, featuring house-made torchiette pasta with chunks of lobster in a delicate lobster-cognac cream sauce made with Calabrian chilies. The pasta is topped with clarified tarragon puree and delicate tendrils of immature basil and pea shoots.
Hawks has long been known for its burger, which is made with American Wagyu beef from Mishima Reserve. Every head chef at Hawks has put his own spin on the burger, and Sawyer is no different. His is a high-end version of a smash burger, topped with deep-fried mortadella, dill pickle and spicy mustard aioli—all made in-house—and served on a house-made sesame seeded bun that’s similar to a Japanese milk bun. The burger comes with a generous portion of thick but crispy fries made from Kennebec potatoes. I ate more than a few of them myself.
Hawks’ food is deceptively simple and unfussy. But listening to Sawyer describe each preparation, and the thought and care that go into everything from the sourcing of ingredients to the way a dish is garnished, made me realize what I’d missed after a year of pandemic eating. It’s a treat to place yourself in the care of a chef who cares so much about what goes on the plate.