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« Weekend Food Events | Main | Thursday Review Rundown »

Tue, Jun 21 2005 at 12:50 AM

Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar - First Impressions

Posted by Jason, Jun 21, 2005

I figured with all the hype that's behind Sonoma, I'd might was well try it out and let everyone know what I thought about it. I was debating all week about whether or not I'd try Sonoma or if I'd go to one of my usual hangouts, but I decided after receiving a few emails from readers asking about it, that I'd give it a try.

I've read mixed things about it. On DR.com, people said the staff was inexperienced, but the food was yummy depending on what you ordered. I have to admit, looking at their menu online, I was fairly intrigued. The appetizers reminded me of the wine bar at 2Amys, with the cheese and meat, but with a better selection. For cheeses, you have many choices of blue, cow, goat, and sheep's cheeses. Your meat selections, or charcuterie, are typical for a sliced meat menu with speck, prosciutto, and capicola and chicken liver pate. I could eat an entire meal at Sonoma and only order off the charcuterie and cheese menus -- and of course I'd order a bottle of wine as well.

I actually tried a French goat cheese, which kind of kicked my ass. I made the mistake of eating a large chunk of it at once, and it was a little more than I could handle because the cheese had a strong, smoky flavor, almost like that of a blue or feta cheese, and it was fairly "stinky". This combination had me drinking large amounts of water to calm down the powerful flavor. My recommendation: if you order the French goat cheese, spread it thinly on the bread they give you. We also had a Spanish sheep's cheese which was fairly mild and pleasant -- a welcome change after the French goat. I also had some of the chicken liver pate which I enjoyed, but the bread that came with the cheese and pate was almost too complex and flavorful. Seriously, all I need is half of a French baguette to enjoy some pate -- not some fancy thick whole-wheat pita bread with rosemary (EDIT: Thanks to Richard for pointing out to me that the "fancy thick whole-wheat pita" is actually Italian flat bread with rosemary). I ended up tasting the bread too much instead of the cheese or pate.

Moving past the cheese and meat courses, you have salads, with an arugula and fennel salad topped with shaved Parmesan, lemon and olive oil, leading the way. I like how simple this salad sounds, and I'll be ordering it when I return, but I skipped it for the pasta courses I'll describe later. Amy ordered one of the other salads, with wood-grilled apples, watercress, pistachio, Gorgonzola and red wine vinaigrette, which I very quickly found out sounded better than it actually tasted. I think the texture of the apples was what did it for me because the grilling left the apples a little less than crisp (perhaps they were overcooked a bit this time). I think if I go back, I might try the venison carpaccio or grilled cuttlefish apps.

I saw many people around me ordering pizza, and they seemed to be enjoying it. There aren't any "prebuilt" pizzas and the toppings are all a la carte ranging from $3 to $5 each. You start with your crust and red tomato-based, green pesto or white olive-oil-based sauces. On top of that, you have your choice of cheeses and then your toppings. The cheapest combination if toppings is a plain cheese pizza for $8. You can easily build a pretty expensive pizza by choosing a couple $5 toppings like morel mushrooms, bottarga (tuna roe), or Vermont buffalo mozzarella. Seeing other people order the pizzas, I wasn't overly impressed with the way they looked, but I'll reserve judgment until I can actually try one.

For my entree, I ordered a double portion of the bucatini with the house-made wild boar sausage, summer squash and pesto. If you're unfamiliar with what bucatini is, it's a thick, hollow spaghetti and it's probably one of my favorite kinds of pasta. I used to order this bucatini dish with sausage and a creme sauce that blew my mind at Il Pizzico and Spezie. Unfortunately, Sonoma's bucatini wasn't nearly as good -- plain and simple. Not that it was bad, but seriously, not even in the same ball park. The bucatini was cooked perfectly al dente, but the homemade wild boar sausage was dry and crumbly which was not a good combination with the pesto sauce, and the summer squash didn't add much flavor. Perhaps when I return, I'll skip the pasta dishes and go straight for the Wagyu beef burger, which is very obviously on the menu to compete with Palena's $10 cheeseburger (a welcome addition since you know I'm not all that crazy about Palena's cheeseburger). Sonoma's version comes with some potatoes on the side and you have the option of adding some toppings like fontina cheese, pancetta or speck.

The high point of the meal for us was definitely dessert. That evening, Sonoma was featuring a smooth, creamy yet fluffy chocolate pudding, and my wife, being the pregnant pudding fiend that she is lately, could not resist. I have to admit that I'm not usually a pudding-type-of-person, but I did fall in love with this after my first taste. It had a very rich bitter chocolate flavor and it wasn't overly sweet like puddings tend to be. I hope it's on the menu again when we return.

In summary, I'd say that (at least right now) Sonoma is a great place to hang out, have some wine, cheese and salads after work. I could spend all night eating a flight of cheese and sampling different wines, then top it off with that chocolate pudding and you can call it a night. I'll reserve my final judgement on the rest of the menu, though, until I can return again and try some of their entrees.

Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar
223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Washington, DC
(202) 544-8088
Website
Map

Hours:
lunch: 11am - 3pm (Monday - Friday)
dinner: 4:30pm - 10pm (Monday - Saturday)
brunch: 10:30am - 2pm (Saturday/Sunday only)
late night menu is available Thursday-Saturday nights 10pm - midnight
Sunday supper 5:30-10:00pm

Dress Code: Casual to dress casual. Sonoma's web site says that they are upscale casual, but when we went, there were people in shorts there.
Parking: I've no clue what the parking situation is at Capitol Hill. We took a cab.
Reservations: Taken and recommended. It should be easier to get a seat once they finish remodeling the upstairs.
Smoking: I didn't ask if smoking was allowed. Damn.
Nearest Metro: Capitol Hill Metro South.
Amy's Bathroom Report: The bathrooms were kept clean, but they had yet to remodel them like the last place. Everything was pretty old.

Categories: Capitol Hill, Italian, New American, Restaurant Reviews, Wine Bar
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Nicholas

Thanks for making your way to Capitol Hill! I've been wondering about this "neighborhood" place, and now will definitely try it.

Richard

Thanks for the notes...

I'm a Cap Hill local and have been in a few times with generally positive experiences.

I am confused by a few of your comments: 1) you only tried one pasta dish - there are several - but say you'll "skip" them next time, 2) you comment on the pizza, but admit you haven't tried it, and 3) how can this place "compete" with Palena which is nowhere nearby?

I really appreciate hearing about what you have - not haven't - tried. I look forward to less speculative reviews....

Thanks,

Richard.

Jason

Did I touch on a sensitive topic Richard? Yes, this "review" was somewhat speculative and I think I was fairly open about that, but you don't always have to order a dish to know what it will taste like. Sorry I didn't give your new favorite hangout a four star writeup.

P

We tried it on Friday. The wine is overpriced - though we didn't try the bottles of house for $15, but the ravioli and burger were really quite good. Less exciting were the mediocre service and high for Capitol Hill prices.

Jason

I really didn't think that the wine was THAT overpriced. I had the same bottle of La Crima Christi del Vesuvio that 2Amys stocks in their bar -- it was about $5 more. You're basically paying for the atmosphere if you know what I mean. I really want to try the burger.

DCJono

I enjoyed your review of Sonoma and I agree with your first-person account of the restaurant.
It's a welcome addition to Capitol Hill, but it isn't perfect yet. The servers seem very inexperienced, but friendly. The entrees I've had aren't particularly great considering the price. But the restaurant I'm sure is dealing with the kinks and will hopefully work these things out in time. Others may have had different experiences - again that comes with the place not having hit its stride yet (and slammed with customers from Day One). The cheeses and cured meats are excellent and the large selection of decent wines by the glass makes this an excellent hang out spot - and will hopefully be more than that in the near future.

Peter

yeah, but doesn't their web site kick ass? www.sonomadc.com ; ) I made it so I'm biased... But I think their food is so good, I had them pay me in food instead of cash. Those guys know how to cook for real.

Ik

My husband and I were there for dinner last night and had a very pleasant meal that was not as expensive as I expected it to be. We had a two-cheese platter, the wagyu burger (which was quite good and perfectly medium rare as requested), the duck ragout (good) and the brussel sprouts side (excellent). Not a huge meal but not as pricey as other places where the food is not as good. The service was a little spotty but friendly and the outdoor patio is a bonus.

Rebecca

I was at Sonoma for work-related event last night and ended up being disappointed, which is unfortunate, since I live in the neighbourhood and was looking forward to a new favorite.

I received the menu ahead of time, so I had very high expectations - everything looked absolutely fantastic, I couldn't wait to get there and eat!

As soon as I got there, even though we had a private room reserved (and therefore I'd expect that best waitstaff the place offers), I was disappointed by the staff. We had a young waiter that was quite pedantic in his manner - just plain snotty. I was the only woman in the room, and I felt it (and not in a good way). He was demeaning and talked to me about the wines as though I wouldn't know what he was talking about.

We sat down to the cheese and charcuterie plates, and I must admit those were fantastic. Absolutely perfect (though I agree with the comment about the crumbly bread in your second post - NOT good for spreading cheese).

The arugula salad was fine - nothing to write home about. The Atlantic Char was a little bland and the sweet potatoes served with them were undercooked and also bland.

All in all, not a great experience, though the wine was great (or maybe I just thought it was b/c I drank a lot to overcompensate for the food). The best part of Sonoma? The website and the menu (before you taste it). Unfortunate.

Jason

A work-related event might not be the best time to judge a restaurant. You should def. go back, especially since it's in your neighborhood, and try it again. I've heard that they've made drastic improvements in the service and I plan to return again myself.

Scott Monfils

I was wondering if any one had a couple of suggestions for late night dessert tonight around 11 after the theatre? (Ford)

Thanks

Jaime

I had a miserable experience at Sonoma's. The staff was so rude to my friend and I. I will never go back there again. I asked the hostess if we could sit at the bar and she answers in a "what do you think" way, of course. THEN we fnd a spot with 2 stools, order our wines from the bartender who couldn't really be bothered with us and didn't even tell us which wine was which (we ordered different wines). Then my friend and I were kicked out of our bar spot by that some nasty hostess because apparently bar spots are reserved there. Reserving corner bar stools???? Overall it was a really horrible experience, and one that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

SciWonk

I live one block away from Sonoma and have been about 7 or 8 times. I agree with the original review. Order the cheese platter and venison carpaccio. The smoky goat cheese was very good. They really need St. Marcellin or another aged goat. I think they did carry an aged Manchego-like sheep cheese that was nice. Wine is overpriced, so buy the inexpensive selection by the glass - it's still decent.

Don't try going for dinner unless you have a reservation. Mon-Tues-Weds weeknights upstairs are the best times to avoid crowds - unless it's booked for a private party.

For the 30-something Cap Hill sophisticate, Sonoma, Montmartre and Belga Cafe are the only walking-distance options for Southeast-DC elegant ambience. I'll suffer through the overpriced food/drinks for pretty surroundings.

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