READY, SET, OPEN: Capitol Hill's newest restaurant, Sonoma (223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-544-8088), has been serving food to the public since mid-May, but it wasn't until last Friday that its name was displayed out front, and two days ago that the newcomer's co-owner, Jared Rager, finally felt comfortable "letting people in without a disclaimer: 'We're still green.' "
"We're holding ourselves to the standards of [its sibling] Mendocino Grille," the Georgetown restaurant that inspired the 75-seat Sonoma, the restaurateur explains.
The Italian-leaning menu, created by Mendocino Grille executive chef Drew Trautman, appeals to people who like to graze and appreciate designer labels. Thus there are cheese plates and charcuterie boards, appetizer-size pastas and entrees apportioned as if they were first courses. What might be the best burger on the Hill is fashioned with pedigreed (Wagyu) beef; thin-crusted pizzas can be topped with the likes of local goat cheese, morel mushrooms and peppery wild-boar sausage. Prawns skewered on rosemary sprigs remind us that the kitchen has some kinks to work out (the accompanying chickpea salad is too cold, with chickpeas that are undercooked).
In contrast with the many pubs that dominate the neighborhood, Sonoma emphasizes wine, with about 25 choices offered by the glass. Can't decide? The servers are happy to offer samples by the shot glass. The bartenders in particular are good ambassadors, eager to steer you to favorite dishes and introduce themselves. "I'm the captain," one of them said to a group of us sitting at the counter, "and he's the cruise director," he added, pointing to a colleague.
The space is spare, modern and cool, with slate-blue walls yielding to exposed brick, and stools and tables in shades of steel. It's also unfinished. Rager promises an upstairs cocktail lounge in the next two weeks, followed later by a more formal dining area.
Small plates and entrees $7-$17.