** (2 stars) Sonoma
223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE MC V. Smoking on patio. Prices: appetizers: $6 to $12; entrees: $14 to $22. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $65 per person.
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.
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Richard Eisinger recently walked into the Capital Grille in Washington to meet three companions. When he couldn't find them, he asked Chris Mullaney, the private dining coordinator and maitre d', if his party had arrived or if he was the first. "To my chagrin," writes the Alexandria reader, "Capital Grille had no reservation for us. I knew a reservation had been made and wondered if I had picked the wrong day." Mullaney offered the restaurant's phone to Eisinger so he could call his companions, all of whom were visiting from out of town. "He allowed me to make five, yes five, long-distance calls to see if I could reach any of them," reports the would-be patron. On the last call, Eisinger found out that everyone was waiting for him -- at the Caucus Room, a competitor of the Capital Grille. Mullaney confirmed the anecdote when I called him: "Our philosophy is to give guests or potential guests everything they need." Eisinger refers to the courtesy as "great non-customer" service.
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