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
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.