- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A same-day reservation barely possible? Can this be true on Capitol Hill? Yes, the new Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar is so popular on weekends that reservations should be made at least a day ahead.

Otherwise, you might be offered a 5:30 or a 9:30 p.m. seating. Our 9:30 p.m. reservation turned into a 10 p.m. seating, but, even so, there was no room for pouting because drinks were comped, the service was great, the space elegant, yet friendly, and the food, when eventually served, was fabulous.

The heirloom tomato salad, served with basil, mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette was delicious — although ours came with watercress instead of basil — and elegantly served on white angular china.

Other nice starters include a dozen or so cheeses: cow, goat, sheep and blue. Served on butcher blocks, they are ideal for sharing among the large groups of female customers (it is a wine bar, after all).

Which brings us to the wine, because what is cheese without the old grape — a sandwich staple? Sonoma has an extensive wine menu, including bottles from Italy, Spain and Portugal and of course California. Nothing local, though. Wine is available by the taste, the glass or the bottle and the waiters are happy to share their knowledge with the uninitiated.

Aside from cheeses, other nice-for-sharing dishes are the offerings of charcuterie, including salami and prosciutto di Parma. Keep in mind, however, that while good for splitting with others, the portions are relatively small.

Sonoma, whose executive chef is Drew Traumann (also of Georgetown’s Mendocino), clearly favors quality over quantity.

The appetizers, called “firsts,” continue in this vein — small, but oh so delicious. The charred Pennsylvania venison carpaccio and the whole wheat cannelloni with braised rabbit, kale and goat cheese were amazing and leave you wanting more. Fortunately, most firsts can be doubled and served as more substantial entrees.

There are a mere seven “seconds,” referring to meat and fish entrees (most of them wood-grilled) on the menu. Good choices on a recent evening were the grilled big-eye tuna served with pumpkin puree and shallots and the Sunnyside Farms Wagyu burger with tomato, grilled onions and new potatoes. Both were perfectly grilled to order — medium rare — and quite succulent. The only complaint: the potatoes — dry and tasteless.

For the most part, much attention is paid to the quality not only of ingredients but also preparation and presentation. There is nothing frilly about the food, but each ingredient makes sense, down to the shallots that perfectly complement the tuna. There is one exception, however, the caramel on top of the incredibly rich, flavorful and crunchy, homemade pistachio ice cream. What is it doing there? This ice cream, the best in town, should stand alone.

Another very tasty dessert is the dark chocolate pudding served with blackberries and peanut biscotti. It’s rich, thick and not very sweet.

Something sweet, however, should be said about the service. The staff is of varying ages, but consistently knowledgeable and friendly — none of the chirpy nonsense so common elsewhere. As with the food, there are no frills. Black attire and friendly efficiency rule.

The interior is tastefully done: Exposed brick, a second-floor lounge with cathedral ceilings and plush chairs, fireplaces and a main, first-floor dining room with plain grey walls and plenty of space. Some tables are large enough to seat up to a dozen people. The bar is refreshingly devoid of TV sets. Instead, the large space is filled — and it is loud — with chatting, laughing and Miles Davis.

Sonoma is that rare find: a restaurant that seemingly without effort combines very good food at a reasonable price with an elegant yet comfortable, unpretentious setting, and, to top it off, offers knowledgeable and friendly service.

RESTAURANT: Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202/544-8088

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and until midnight Thursday through Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $6 to $12 (some can be doubled and served as main courses); main courses, $8 to $17; desserts, $7 to $8; cheese boards, $7 to $39

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

METRO: Capitol South

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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