Saturday, July 08, 2006

It's a bit so-so at SONOMA Restaurant & Wine Bar

Last night four of us ventured to Capitol Hill (well, out friends live there) for a first visit to SONOMA (223 Pennsylvania Ave, SE and while I won't rave, I won't heap out the complaints either. The experience had its highs and lows. The bar, lounge and outdoor sidewalk areas were heaving (well, it was a reasonably pleasant-for DC summer-SATURDAY night), and the noise levels in the "Bistro" where there are only a couple dozen tables was at high.Will tried a glass of refreshing ARNEIS to start and I requested the QUIVIRA "Wine Creek Ranch" 2005 Mourvedre Rose from Dry Creek Valley which I loved; a bold and very dry rose! Sadly, our server took almost 15 minutes to get these to us. The water glasses (smaller than your average breakfast juice glass) came with lukewarm water (and never ice as they would have overflowed) and needed refilling constantly.

Indeed, for a wine bar, the glassware was below the quality of almost any decent place in town. They used thick cheap restaurant glassware that really did not help the wine. We realized that the reason for this was because we heard a least three glasses break during our several hours there!

Sonoma had many dining options such as plates of meat, cheeses, salads, pizzas, pastas, starters and entrees. For this reason we chose many different items, some to share, and had fun weaving our way through the for-the-most-part delicious food. First came the HALF CHARCUTERIE PLATTER of Meats for which we chose DUCK SALAMI, PROSCIUTTO and AMISH CHICKEN PATE. These were all superb, and the latter rich and creamy. They were served with small side bowls of HERBED NUTS, superb WINE STEEPED FIGS, unexciting PICKLED SCALLIONS and TRUFFLED PEACHES, which were a mystery in themselves. These little olive-looking and indeed tasting peaches come from Italy in truffle oil and to me tasted like something from the pickle side of the earth, rather than fruit. My guess is that someone bought a whole pile of jars of this stuff and needs to get rid of it. The platter came with ample delicious focaccia and a heap of country mustard. Our first bottle of TRUTH "Lindsey's Cuvee" 2003 from Santa Rosa finally arrived and thoroughly enjoyed thjis syrah-cabernet blend with its high (14.5%) alcohol level, intensity and spicy bite as well. (You may note a hint of sarcasm, as while we asked for our dining to be leisurely, it always seemed forever to get the wine).

The salads went from a decent to our superb BABY BEET SALAD with Frise, Black Walnut Vinagrette and Ricotta Salata. I enjoyed the saltiness and crumbly cheese more than a creamy goat with the beets as it brought out more flavor.

"Firsts" as they were called included a yummy PENNE with PULLED AMISH CHICKEN, Dried Tomatoes, Basil and more of that salty crumbly Ricotta Salata. An extremely rich and filling SQUASH BLOSSOM-GOAT CHEESE RAVIOLI with Summer Squash and Fresh Tomato Sauce and my excellent LINGUINE VONGOLE (with clams), Housemade Bacon, Chili Flakes, Garlic and White Wine which packed a bite from the chili and really had a rich sauce I just wanted to mop up. Alas, Sonoma does not serve bread unless you wish to order extra focaccia for a fee. Frankly, it wasn't worth it, so forget mopping up any yummy sauces wihtout forking over an extra three bucks or so.

Our final bottle was a very plummy and fruity AMETHYST VINALIA 1999 Carneros Sangiovese which was oddly lighter than the other wines depsite its age. I had never heard of this vineyard (and indeed many on the wine list), but we enjoyed experimenting nonetheless. While Will ordered the superb ORGANIC WAGYU BURGER with his choice of MELTED GOAT CHEESE(which masked the excellent meat a bit too much)and WILD MUSHROOMS, the rest of us chose the BABY BACK RIBS. The ribs were decent, but not of great quality, the POTATO-GREEN GARLIC SALAD on the side was superb, and the WILD FLOWER HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE drizzled over the rbs made for a fabulous change of pace and atruly different preparation, despite a chewy or gristly rib here or there.

Several of us needed a big wine fix and went for glasses of STEELE PACINI 2002 ZINFANDEL from Mendocino which was fun, but only our second choice after the Steele Syrah wasn't available. Desserts are not memorable from decent Banana Ice Cream with Caramel Syrup and Pistachio Nuts to a mediocre VANILLA PANNA COTTA with Blackberry Sauce, so I was glad I opted for a small platter of cheese served with overtoasted hard bread (which I skipped) and both red and white wine jellys (which were yummy in small portions on the cheese).

GORWYDD CAERPHILLY (listed on the menu as from "Whales" as opposed to "Wales" was a treat as you rarely find the finer British cheeses in the US; UBRIACO PROSECO (listed as from France on the menu--it's from Italy) is a harder nutty cheese and finally REDMONDO Oregon goat lsited as caramelly, lush and herbal was oddly none of these. It actually was an aged goat and reminded me more of a parmesan,pecorino or hard Dutch cheese, but I was stomped!

While our overall experience was NOT negative, I just don't think I would head back to Sonoma unless it was on a quiet night, perhaps for the burger, or a double portion of pasta; maybe the Charcuterie with some nice big red wine.