POSTED ON JANUARY 18, 2012:
What A Bistro Should Be
Fresh and organic ingredients complement atmosphere and drink menu
A bistro is somewhat like a good pub. The best of them -- both pubs and bistros -- are all about simplicity, both of food and atmosphere, and are places where friends can go either for a quick bite and brew or to stay longer for a full meal and linger in conversation.
Sonoma Bistro and Wine Bar, on Brookside, is surely not a pub, but here you find casual simplicity that, while not exactly homey, is nevertheless both relaxed and refined.
Owner, Tim Baker, describes it like this: "A bistro is slightly more formal than a cafe, but more casual than a brasserie or full service restaurant. For example, Sonoma has rolled silverware and no table cloths. That's typical of a bistro whereas a brasserie would have place settings and table coverings." This simplicity flows into the choice of food and drink as well.
So far so good.
"Sonoma Bistro was inspired by my travels to the West Coast wine country and my experiences in Northern California restaurants," Baker said. "Sonoma uses simple, fresh, organic ingredients to compose very broadly appealing dishes just like the ones you would find in the best cafes in St. Helena and Yountville."
Also, while Sonoma does have a short but carefully chosen beer list (all in bottles, no draft beer here) that should not be ignored, including Marshall's three regulars, it should be no surprise that wine is the dominant and defining beverage. In fact, in a reversal of the usual order, the menu was created specifically to be paired with wine. Yet, as stated boldly on their homepage, "Our little restaurant is not the place for wine snobs or elitists." As is the trend these days even in some of the swankiest places, the list fits on two pages: one for whites and one for reds, with 38 selections of each. Rather than impress with depth of quantity, here there is a small but carefully chosen assortment that the diner can be sure will usually pair well with any food from the menu.
Sommelier, Joe Breaux, who chooses the wines for both Sonoma and its sister restaurant, The Brasserie, said the wines at Sonoma "are selected for their quality, new world style and value," all available by the glass, he added.
My dining companion and I began with glasses of Calistoga Cellars Zinfandel (Napa '07, $8.50) and Mr. Black's Concoction (what a great name!) Shiraz (Australia '06, $8.50) which we ordered along with the cheese plate.
The cheese Plate ($10), which on the menu is described as "Artisan Cheeses with Accompaniments," consisted of pecan encrusted brie, Greek spread (with feta, kalamata olives and goat cheese), smoked cheddar spread (with jalapeno), and crumbled gorgonzola served with grapes, seasoned mixed nuts, apples, organic honey and house made crostini.
I asked about the presence of the spreads and crumbled cheese rather than blocked cheeses and was told that kitchen manager and head chef Nona Helmick is more interested in including cheeses that are "easy to eat" at table. I must admit we did not find the crumbled gorgonzola very easy to eat under the circumstances -- perhaps better suited for a salad or pasta -- but it was artistic and tasty, nothing seemed to be out of place on an "artisan cheese plate."
Next we tried the Caprese Salad ($8). Traditionally, a caprese salad consists of slices of tomato interspersed with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper. Very simple. Thankfully there are many common variations that keep life interesting; for example, at Sonoma, instead of slices of a larger variety of tomato, such as a Boxcar Willie, locally produced grape tomatoes (halved) are used and a balsamic reduction joins the mix. Although fairly common, we both agreed the balsamic vinegar was a bit overpowering for the ensalada caprese, for it interfered with the delicate communication between the fresh mozzarella and tomato, which is the essence of the dish.
The entrees, Pizza Bolognese ($8) and Grilled Skirt Steak with Gorgonzola ($17), were accompanied by another glass of wine, this time the A to Z Night & Day (Oregon '07, $6), a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo. The Pizza Bolognese is so named because of the classic Bologna-style meat sauce used in preparation, here made with ground beef, veal and spicy Italian sausage. This ragu is the kind of slow-cooked, homey, hearty fare perfect for a bistro concept. Three cheeses, mozzarella, provolone and parmesan, topped the pie. Highly recommended -- we both found it excellent, sauce, cheese and crispy crust.
Ten varieties of pizza are offered, as well as three calzoni and three flat breads. The flat breads differ from pizzas in that they have a very thin, crisp, cracker-like crust.
The Grilled Skirt Steak with Gorgonzola is served with arugula salad (with grape tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette) and hand-made onion rings. The steak was rich with a depth of flavor, and the gorgonzola (kin to Blue Cheese) complimented the refined taste of the steak with its pungent, robust and even spicy taste.
The onion rings wore a generous, crispy batter without a trace of greasiness. With this dish my friend especially enjoyed the play between the light bitterness of the arugula and the tangy savoriness of the gorgonzola-covered beef.
Service was excellent from the beginning: Cory was attentive, knowledgeable about the food but unobtrusive. Both our main server and the server who presented the plates were able to explain the dishes with ease.
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