This past October, Mayor Kevin Johnson held a press conference to proclaim Sacramento the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America. The concept of farm-to-fork dining isn’t a new one; our agrarian forefathers sourced and ate local foods long before it became a modern-day “movement.” But consumers’ appreciation for this practical and wholesome approach has grown powerfully in recent years. On the heels of Johnson’s spirited proclamation, a striking new restaurant celebrating local agriculture has arrived on the scene. Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, which opened in the former Spataro space on L Street, is named for John Sutter’s Hock Farm, established in 1841 on the Feather River just south of present-day Yuba City.
An appropriate muse for a farm- to-table restaurant, John Augustus Sutter was one of the region’s first and most influential settlers to recognize the Sacramento Valley’s immense agricultural potential. Sutter developed his Hock Farm into an extensive grain, orchard, cattle and vineyard operation. A large black-and-white illustration of the farm decorates one of the restaurant’s walls.
If you’ve ever been to Spataro, you may be shocked when you walk into Hock Farm. The transformation is dazzling. Spataro’s dim lighting, sturdy, masculine booths and hushed, businesslike ambiance are gone. The restaurant’s brick walls are now a cheery bright white, and the space is open and airy. Jaunty sprigs of rosemary and bowls of fresh citrus adorn the contemporary wood tables.
A self-description attributed to John Sutter—“Patriarch, Priest, Father and Judge”—is inscribed on the wall above the bustling open kitchen. The bar area features a large Douglas fir table carved into the shape of California, with a cutout star to represent Sacramento, and there are several roomy community tables. The noise level in the restaurant has elevated substantially in its new incarnation. But the energy is undeniably invigorating, infusing new life into a space importantly situated across the street from the state’s Capitol.
Randy Paragary owns the restaurant along with longtime business partner Kurt Spataro and three former Paragary employees: executive chef David LaRoche, Shaun Freeman and Brad Peters. LaRoche’s menu, which will change frequently to accommodate fresh, seasonal ingredients, is dominated by smaller plates and is a delight to peruse. I always feel a sense of adventure and fun when I find myself wanting to order far more dishes off a restaurant’s menu than I actually can eat in one sitting, and this was certainly the case at Hock Farm. Selections range from savory appetite-whetters such as Dixon lamb and beef kabobs (which looked and tasted suspiciously like meatballs) perched in a bracing minted yogurt to an intriguing lineup of wood-fired oven dishes, lots of tantalizing nibbles (don’t miss the beer-friendly Fanta pork sliders) and a handful of comforting “full plates.”
Standout dishes from my visits included a tender, herbsprinkled roasted half chicken; a crispy asparagus fritto misto punctuated with fat Gulf shrimp, artichoke hearts, tangy lemon slices and baby fava beans; and a pistachiospeckled roasted beet salad enlivened with juicy chunks of ruby grapefruit and bathed in a zingy citrus vinaigrette.
A moist pork shoulder dotted with Manila clams and arugula was perhaps the best thing I tried. Lusty, complex and inspired, it provided the perfect sopping sauce for a cushy side of housemade focaccia. Hock Farm’s pizzas also are a sure bet. I relished a daily version that was garnished with tender stalks of asparagus and mushrooms. The mahogany-colored duck confit, accompanied by slightly spicy pork sausage and braised Savoy cabbage, was another winning dish.
Items I might avoid the next time include the kitchen’s “dressed” egg, an upscale version of deviled eggs that tasted so powerfully of mustard, we left two of the three eggs untouched. And while the chicken liver mousse was earthily, silkily appealing, I found the sweet Port aspic blanketing it a jarring and unpleasant distraction. You also can expect seasonal inspiration and innovation from Hock Farm’s bar. The delectable Lavender Crusta is a refreshing quaff featuring organic orange liqueur, wild violet liqueur and fresh lemon, with an entertaining crust of lavender sugar adhering sweetly to the rim of the glass.
I have to wonder what John Sutter would think if he were to stroll into this lively new restaurant, a modernday homage to his bygone Hock Farm. As one of the Valley’s first— and foremost—farm-to-fork diners, he would (I suspect) give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.