Thu 8 Jan 2009
I walked into Sonoma restaurant and wine bar on a wet, cold Wednesday night about 20 minutes before Mike was supposed to arrive. I knew on the metro over to Capital South I was running ahead of schedule but looked forward to finding a quiet corner at the bar where I could savor a glass of full-bodied red wine and bury my nose in a book. Tough luck for me. Weather and January trends be damned, the bar was packed. Turns out Congress in session trumps freezing rain. I squeezed past the hostess stand and managed to find a tiny plot of real estate by the end of the bar, where I was pleased to see Executive Chef Drew Trautmann walking the floor and keeping an eye on his diners.
The interior of Sonoma is sleek and cool – grey walls, long low tables and minimal decor. There is a very urban West Coast feel to the place. The only clue that you are dining on Capitol Hill is the patrons. Make no mistake, this is a Hill place. The bar is packed with clean cut 20 and 30 somethings (aka, the people who actually run the political show behind the scenes) and everyone who walks through the door gets an immediate up and down. Is it because they may know who you work for or because they are giving you the eye for a pick up line? Either. Both. That’s the magic elixir of DC.
Sonoma focuses on local, seasonal dishes although the line for “local” is often blurry. Sometimes it means DC area meat and produce, sometimes it’s reflected in farm-raised offerings from further afield. Ether way, the menu offers classic American staples with a creative twist. Two good friends of ours, Neil and Kiki, were nice enough to buy Mike and me a gift card to Sonoma as a joint birthday gift. Not only was it thoughtful, it allowed us to attack the menu with a vengeance. Did we ever.
What we ordered after the jump!
We started off with a half board of charcuterie and dug right into the homemade options focusing mostly on game: venison mortadella, pheasant pate and rabbit rillette. It was meat heaven. The venison was salty and savory but also incredibly tender (so often vension, which is a lean meat, gets too tough when cooked). The pheasant pate, mixed with pistachios for added flavor and texture, was silky and light as air. Our favorite was the rabbit rillette – creamy and robust underneath with a tangy yet rich aspic on top, the rillette was insanely, resolution-bustingly delicious. The entire plate was served with focaccia bread, wine-soaked figs, nuts and pickled scallions. Despite our quickly filling stomachs, Mike and I continued to spread the rillette on foccaccia bites so we could finish the little jar. My only recommendation to the kitchen team is to consider a lighter bread, a flatbread or simple cracker, in lieu of focaccia. It was struggle enough to enjoy the delicious charcuterie board without thick (albeit lovely) bread competing for space in our stomachs. As an added bonus, our fantastic waitress Hilary also managed to find some homemade pickles after a special request (we’d seen them in fall menus online) and they did not disappoint: bright green, crispy and light with just the right touch of brine and a perfect amount of garlic flavor. Chef, please serve these all year!
Sonoma offers “firsts” and “seconds” for entrees, not quite tapas style but portions medium-sized enough to order two and split a third (or maybe we’re just gluttons). For our split “first” course, we shared pork belly confit with homemade spinach gnocchi. The pork belly was crisp and salty, with a distinct anise note that we couldn’t quite place until we asked, but a little bit redundant after the charcuterie plate. What can I say, we love pork. The gnocchi were done perfectly: little dumpling pillows. They could have been a side item all their own.
For our entrees, Mike was drawn to the lasagne made with Pipe Dreams cheese. Mike gets so excited about Pipe Dreams cheese, as you may recall, that he’ll buy it out of the back of a van in downtown DC. Having it in a meal lovingly prepared by culinary professionals was a treat indeed. The pasta dish was served in a hot (“hot skillet! don’t touch!”) skillet. It was rich and creamy, toasted brown just so on top. As much as he enjoyed it, Mike wasn’t quite able to finish the rich dish. I opted for the trout served with a brown butter sauce, sections of grapefruit, and roasted fingerling potatoes. The fish was cooked and seasoned perfectly with the grapefruit adding a great acid touch. The butter sauce was nice but I was happy with the dish seasoned as simply as it was.
We were so completely stuffed after those dishes, I had zero interest in desserts when Hilary brought the menu over. But wait, what’s this? Duck egg creme brulee? “It. Is. Awesome,” Hilary assured us. Okay, twist my arm. Had I not known this was made with duck eggs instead of regular eggs, I still would tasted a difference with this dessert although I probably would have attributed the extra richness to fresh cream. Its actually the extra large yolk in duck eggs that brings an extra oomph the the dessert.
So we left full… so very full. So full we could do nothing after dinner except don loose-fitting pants and think of all the ways we’ll tackle our New Year’s weight-loss resolution first thing tomorrow.
223 Pennsylvania Ave SE
Washington, DC 20003