Port in a Storm

If good food were all that we required of our restaurants, a lot of people probably wouldn’t eat out half as much as they do. What those of us who make dining a priority are seeking from our restaurants—at least the ones we’ve decided to drop some decent money on—is that elusive extra something that goes beyond being well-fed: a degree of transport, a place for whiling away the evening.

The fact that Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, of all places, could forget this crucial lesson in customer expectation is surprising, because it seems to have been designed to maximize comfort and charm. The first time I dropped by, I could see why residents of Capitol Hill were so excited to have this offshoot of Georgetown’s inviting and inventive Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar in the neighborhood. What’s not to like about a place where the wine flows like water, cheese is accorded the dignity of a main course, delicious small plates nudge aside entrees, and the evening, whether unfolding at the bar or at one of the handsome communal tables, feels ripe with promise?

And then I waited for more than 15 minutes one night before I was even greeted by a server. Another night, I watched as a server twirled about the dining room, wondering which table she ought to set my order down upon. Some nights my plates took so long in coming out that I gave up on them. Others, they arrived before I had finished the previous course. And though I struggled to hear my tablemates talking over the din—the sound was closer to a nightclub’s than an intimate wine bar’s—I had no trouble following the conversations on either side of me. You’ll find more separation between the tables at a McDonald’s.

So much for whiling away the evening.

What makes this thoughtlessness so hard to accept is that, in just about every other respect, Sonoma is all about thoughtful touches. Wines, naturally, have been given an uncommon degree of care. Thanks to a temperature-controlled glass case at the bar, in which rows of bottles have been rigged to taps, Sonoma is able to dispense more than 50 wines by the glass, not to mention the same number of 3-ounce “tastes.” Can’t decide between an opulent barolo or an earthy nebbiolo? Get both. In many cases, two tastes can be had for the price of one glass—an enticement as appealing as the wine list itself, long on classic Italians and underrated Californians.

The menu defers to the wine, and not the other way around, which accounts for all the cured meats, cheeses, and small plates—a sort of more elaborate, gourmet version of antipasti. (Not that an upscale-minded Mediterranean place would dare use the word these days.) The cheeses are a treat, selected for quality as well as variances in texture, flavor, and intensity. And I love the freedom to create my own sampler, bringing together on a single, gloriously indulgent plate, say, a funky Humboldt Fog goat cheese, a tart and creamy Pipe Dreams chèvre, and a near-melting Tallegio. (I could do without that hard, crunchy bread, though; it only detracts from the pleasures at hand.)

The rest of the menu displays similarly astute shopping, and credit executive chef Drew Trautmann and his crew for being more interested in preserving the purity of natural, organic flavors than in playing around with them. A plate of tiny, lightly marinated beets tastes pure and clean and sweet; thin, crunchy green beans drizzled with dill-flavored cream and scattered atop juicy slices of tomato is a traipse through a farmer’s market in peak season. Thinly shaved venison carpaccio is paired with fresh sprigs of basil, in a happy coupling of aggressively fragrant flavors. The most intriguing dish: a small pinch bowl filled with truffled baby peaches. Resembling a cross between olives and caper berries but tasting like neither, the peaches are crunchy, briny, and tart, with an oddly musty, resonant sweetness that primes the palate for wine as surely as chips and pretzels prime the palate for beer.

Even as you move from the left to the right of the menu you’re still likely to feel as though you’re grazing. That’s not a bad thing. A number of items would be right at home on a menu of meze, such as a small dish of grilled prawns threaded on a sprig of rosemary and set atop a creamy chickpea purée. The roasted lamb chops come unadorned—only a lick of cool, mint-flecked yogurt sets off the meat, lightening what might have been a too-wintry dish. The gnocchi are terrific, full of weight yet resilient, and the portion-control-practicing chefs allow you to feel virtuous even as you gorge on something so rich. The least Cali-fied dishes are also the least rewarding, such the disappointingly mealy Wagyu burger or the dry roast chicken breast with mashed potatoes and dull gravy.

This notion of grazing-as-dining, in a Hill culture in which going out to eat is what you do to pass the time between work, might have served as a kind of culinary re-education, an admonition to sip and savor. Yet for every table that ordered up a plate of cheese or indulged in a selection of the excellent cured meats, I saw someone talking on the cell phone or conducting earnest business at the table. You can’t blame the hard-driving Hill rats, though, when Sonoma, delicious as it is, makes it so difficult even for the rest of us to while away the night.

Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. (202) 544-8088.—Todd Kliman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.

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