By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Suddenly, a diner can't turn around in a new restaurant without bumping into charcuterie, plates of artisanal cheeses and more wines by the glass than Baskin-Robbins lists flavors.
Surely you've noticed, too. Every other Washington neighborhood now claims a spot where the vibe is easy and the food leans to the unpretentious (and, typically, Italian). In Cleveland Park, Dino is packing 'em in with antipasti, salumi, panini and a nonsmoking dining room. Over on U Street NW, the two-level Al Crostino is setting out plates of Italian nibbles, plus a few entrees and vino to match. The trend originated when the owners of Mendocino Grille in Georgetown opened a second restaurant on tavern-heavy Capitol Hill this spring and gave it a name that massages the California theme: Sonoma.
Even before a proper sign went up, residents flocked to the bar -- which stocks 30 or so wines in a refrigerated case that also preserves the product once it's opened -- and to the banquette, which runs along the side of the long and narrow dining room. Sonoma is like an Abercrombie & Fitch model: good-looking in a fresh sort of way. From the stenciling on the front window to the walls of brick or slate-blue paint, the design runs simple and handsome. The hostess is as willowy and gorgeous as you'll find downtown, but far friendlier, a theme that continues at the bar, where the guys behind the counter are apt to ask for your name, and extend theirs, as they help you select something to sip.
Conceived by chef Drew Trautmann, who splits his time between Mendocino and Sonoma, the menu practically insists that you share your food with your dining companions. Order some sausage, and it arrives on a butcher block of wood that practically covers the table. There are six meats to consider: prosciutto, salami, speck (smoked prosciutto), mortadella (lightly smoked pork sausage), bresaola (air-dried beef) and a rich chicken liver pate. Sharing the surface of the board are fat pieces of grilled bread and optional little pots of "accents" -- herbed nuts, pickled red onions, wine-plumped figs -- to spice up the eating. Diners have the choice of three meats ($19) or the entire roster ($37); in my experience, even the former, or "half" a charcuterie board, is plenty for three to share.
Following the current vogue, the kitchen divides its menu into "firsts" and "seconds," which basically translates into (take your pick) big appetizers or small entrees, some of which can be ordered at double the size if you're not sated by moderate portions.
Pastas make up the bulk of the "firsts," and they include some charmers. Tender gnocchi with bites of tomato is pan-fried, then toasted; the addition of celery and bottarga (dried mullet roe) lend gentle crunch and a mysterious saline edge. Pleasantly chewy risotto, stained black with squid ink, is dressed with calamari and bits of speck. Finished with a knob of butter, the pasta is unabashedly, gloriously rich.
"Seconds" yield a more varied collection of meat and seafood dishes, including a hamburger made with Wagyu beef, prized for its dense marbling, that is sometimes bursting with flavor and other times, frankly, just a burger. I always enjoy its toasted bun and sauteed onions, but not the accompanying heap of roasted and oddly chewy potatoes. Free-range lamb chops are of fine flavor, but so tiny they last only two bites each. I have no qualms about the plump roast chicken, whose flavor is enhanced by a long soak in lemon and in garlic oil; cooked beneath a brick in the oven, this entree -- make that second -- arrives for your viewing pleasure on a soft bed of polenta. And if rockfish caught from local waters is offered, dive in. The kitchen flatters the fish with a loose salad of potatoes and corn in a garlicky mayonnaise swirled with prawn oil. Rosemary-spiked grilled prawns, threaded on a skewer and set on chickpea puree, reveals another pleasure from the waters. A handful of side dishes round out the savory portion of the menu. Sauteed chard with lemon is astringent; polenta enriched with mascarpone is addictive.
Unlike Mendocino Grille, Sonoma revels in what's simple--and that's meant as a bouquet, not a complaint. So the tomato salad with mozzarella is precisely that, with a shimmering drizzle of fresh basil oil to unite the elements. The joy is in the variety on the plate: The red, deep yellow and pale green tomatoes form an edible rainbow.
A second salad also pays tribute to the garden: crisp green beans moistened with herby creme fraiche set over slices of tomato. Pizzas can be accessorized with the likes of very good boar sausage, ground in-house, and goat cheese from Pennsylvania.
For a place that likes to emphasize its use of local ingredients, it's a bit of a surprise not to find any wines from Virginia on the list here. (In fairness, this oversight is not limited to Sonoma.) And while I think tasting notes can be helpful to patrons, the printed descriptions here are rudimentary and repetitive; better to ask a waiter how an individual wine stands up. Still, it's good to see so many wines offered by the taste, the glass and the bottle, and at least a dozen bottles offered for $30 or less. The selection of "light, crisp & refreshing whites" is particularly appealing.
Desserts are decadent. Chocoholics can get their fix with a dark-colored pudding or an ultramoist layered cake. Pistachio ice cream is as dense and chewy as kulfi, India's take on the subject, and it comes with lashings of caramel sauce. Fresh berries are treated to zabaglione, a frothy custard whipped together from egg yolks, marsala and sugar.
At full throttle, Sonoma is uncomfortably loud. Its bare tables are set so close to one another, you have to suck in your stomach -- and worry about your pants meeting up with your neighbor's pizza -- as you slide in and out of your perch. Yet, when I'm drinking a lovely glass of wine for less than the price of a matinee, and polishing off every last strand of pasta from my plate, I'm also pleased to know about an alternative to all the restaurants nearby that are merely cooking in place.
I'd love to keep Sonoma a secret. But I knew it was too late the day it opened.
When the Weather Outside Is Frightful . . .
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, December 23, 2005
When warm weather rolls around, I prefer to sit on a patio with a refreshing wheat beer. Falling temperatures mean searching out warming cocktails and crackling fireplaces. Problem is, I'm never the only one with that idea: Chilly nights find crowds packed in the fireplace lounge at the Tabard Inn or huddled near the wood-burning stove in the backroom at Nanny O'Brien's.
When I first visited the upstairs lounge at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar earlier this year, my eye skipped over the airy room's huge windows, exposed brick and gleaming hardwood floors, heading straight for the restored fireplace. One of the servers confirmed that it worked, so I chalked the lounge up as a place to remember for the winter.
Returning after one of our recent ice storms, I was looking forward to warming up while sipping a nice, big red wine. Surprisingly, the only flames came from three white candles sitting on the mantle.
"We're going to be using [the fireplace], but it needs to be cleaned," owner Jared Rager says. "We lit it up a few times, but once we started using it, someone asked when it had last been cleaned. It's something of a temporary delay, and it should be in full swing soon."
Rager adds that they're looking at converting the fireplace from wood to gas to use it more.
I came for the fire, but that's just one reason Sonoma's lounge has become a favorite place to meet for drinks on Capitol Hill. Downstairs, the dining room's long bar is often slammed with a combination of groups waiting for tables and oenophiles who've come to sample the three dozen wines available by the glass. Sipping a $12 glass of some wonderful pinot just isn't as enjoyable when you're standing elbow to elbow jockeying for a seat, but you do get to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations. ("I had a meeting with the British ambassador this morning, and he asked . . . ")
Upstairs, though, it's more relaxed and intimate. As with Sonoma's always-hopping bistro, the lounge has a stylish, uncluttered look: Two huge mirrors lean against slate-gray walls. Lighting is soft. Seating options include boxy modern sofas, boxier armchairs and low leather stools surrounding jet-black coffee tables, all neatly arranged for small groups of friends. Near the fireplace, I'm drawn to soft benches that resemble mattress pads on stumpy metal legs. (Yes, they're just as soft.)
Chairs near those aforementioned windows, which overlook Pennsylvania Avenue, are as coveted as tickets to the State of the Union address.
There are some tradeoffs. Instead of the three dozen wines by the glass available downstairs, you get a choice of four reds (including an oaky '99 Syrah from Sonoma's Bon Family Vineyards), four whites (Rager suggests Margaret's Blend, a blend of Tocai Friulano and Arneis from JB Cellars) and one sparkling (a nice little Italian Prosecco).
Those looking for a snack will find they can't order from the full menu; selections are limited to charcuterie platters and cheese plates. It would be too hard to offer 30 more wines by the glass upstairs, Rager says, so "these tend to be the middle and higher end . . . something that will appeal to everyone."
The upstairs lounge will also be getting its own reserve wine list, which may move away from the current Italy- and California-centric selection of bottles. Sonoma, like its sister restaurant Mendocino, also offers one of the better wine deals in town: half-price bottles from the oft-pricey reserve list every Sunday night.
To date, my biggest frustration has been not with service but with the lounge's popularity. On three occasions in recent weeks, I've stopped by to find the second floor closed for private events or holiday parties. "It's not something we're happy about," Rager says. "We were overwhelmed with demand."