Drive past Sonoma restaurant by day, and you'll be, at best, puzzled. That's assuming you even find it, tucked away on the short stretch of California Street between Commonwealth and Waugh. (Sonoma, on California, get it?) The two-story building of worn, yellowish brick looks exhausted by its former incarnation as the offices of a charitable foundation. It's nondescript, to put it kindly. All that's readily visible from the street is a knee-high valet parking sign and a cramped, forlorn lobby.
Drive by again at night, though, and you'll discover a wondrous sculpted blossom of light filling the entrance atrium, beaming peacock-gaudy shades of rose, blue and lavender into the darkened street. Oh, Cinderella, your coach awaits.
Inside is another delightful surprise package. Brave the weird little lobby and climb the stairs to the second floor to find the restaurant. The main dining room suddenly spreads out before you, dark and cool and spacious, sparkling with tabletop candles and cunningly poised down lights, but none too bright to be unkind to the over-30 contingent of Sonoma's customers. These older but still very hip patrons are, after all, precisely those who can best afford Sonoma's mid-to-upscale pricing. Along the windowed wall is a long, polished see-and-be-seen bar, opposite a dramatically raised stage with a piano for late-evening entertainment. And outside is one of this city's best dining decks, bigger than most urban living spaces: an impressive 3,600 square feet of wood planking and bistro furniture with a pretty view of the downtown skyline through sycamore trees. On a fine fall evening, I can't imagine a better place to be than this very grown-up tree house.
General manager Patrick Zone and chef Kirk DeLoach, both formerly of DaCapo's on the Parkway, opened Sonoma for owner Jay Allen some seven months ago to dish up what Zone describes as "simple New American" cuisine. "This space is deceptive," agrees Zone. "It's much bigger inside than it looks from the outside. One of my friends calls it 'the secret squirrel place.' "
On our first visit, we went unfashionably early for dinner and so scored one of the curving booths along the entrance wall of the indoor dining room. "We call these the 'celebrity booths,' " our waitress confided with a knowing grin. "You can see everybody from here, and everybody can see you." Indeed, from the slight elevation of our semicircular couch we could see every table indoors and most of those outside, plus we had a bird's-eye view of the action along the bar. Voyeurism can be fun, I found, watching such a handsome gender-blending crowd on the make.
Both the appetizers our waitress recommended as "awesome" proved just that. The portobello nachos ($7) sound weird but through DeLoach's sleight of hand translate to wonderful: Instead of the usual trite-and-true tortilla triangles, he uses ethereally light wonton chips, fried crisp and striped with thick, meaty slivers of grilled mushroom performing admirably as stand-ins for fajita steak. Transpose an intensely flavored relish of deep red oven-dried tomatoes for pico de gallo, send in a chewy, fresh-tasting buffalo mozzarella and a pecan-laden pesto just for fun, and you've got a fusion-Mex classic.
We were equally delighted with the gyoza appetizer ($8), gyoza being the Japanese interpretation of pot stickers. The delicate, pale dumplings are stuffed fat with tender lobster and pork and served with a lightly pungent "kilawin" sauce for dipping. Its side plate of seaweed salad was a pleasant surprise: vivid green shreds of crisp seaweed sprinkled with crunchy toasted sesame seeds, tangy with rice vinegar.
Our waitress was less enthusiastic about the Southern crab cakes ($7), and rightly so. For me, it's a texture issue. The cakes are wetly, unrelievedly mushy inside, with the exception of too many almost-raw chunks of celery that stand out like mean little sore thumbs. Here DeLoach uses a sweet chili aioli sauce that's pretty and pink like remoulade but lacks a remoulade's personality. I kept swabbing bits of crab cake around the plate trying vainly to wipe up more of the sauce, until I finally realized that no matter how much I applied there was never going to be enough flavor.
A generous steaming bowl of seafood gumbo ($5) went a long way to restore my faith in chef DeLoach's Louisiana heritage credentials. Served proudly without rice (gasp), this thick, fragrant blend based on a leather-colored roux was richly suffused with the salty tang of seafood. I might pout over the lack of actual seafood in our particular serving -- we found only a couple of crawfish tails and a few lonesome flakes of crabmeat -- but the just-right spicy flavor was flawless. We fell upon the gumbo with a clatter of spoons and then sopped bread in the lees left in the bottom of the bowl.
It's bold to offer an entrée like "New Orleans Style Bar-B-Que Shrimp" ($17) to Houstonians, surely an audience who have had access to the real thing since birth. If DeLoach intends homage to the classic version served at Pascal's Manale, he falls short of the mark. These shrimp are big and tender, as they should be, but their sticky, baked-on sauce is too sweet and not nearly spicy enough. It needs more bite, and the piled-on fruity sweetness of the pineapple chutney doesn't provide it. The net result tastes unfortunately like a middle-of-the-road bottled barbecue sauce, something Iowans might buy. But, oh, the crawfish risotto underneath those sadly sauced shrimp is glorious: creamy, toothsomely chewy and studded with pert little curls of crawfish tail.
Would that the plate of shrimp had been brought to table hotter Is temperature a service issue or a kitchen problem? I'm never sure. Servers at Sonoma are young and casual but attentive, with an offhand, seemingly unflappable sense of humor. Humor is an asset when the room gets busy and the servers and busboys start to get under each other's feet; crashing collisions and breathtaking near misses abound. We watched one waitress nearly set her shirt afire leaning unwisely over a tabletop candle; she paused only to slap sparks from the scorched spot then, with a grin, smoothly resumed her description of the entrées.
The crawfish fettucine ($15) was also served rapidly cooling, but here the spice needle swung wildly into the red zone. The pasta was tossed with a generous amount of crawfish, a mild, firm andouille sausage and half-dollar-size slices of elephant garlic in a vividly orange-tinted cream sauce. Usually I approach whole mouthfuls of garlic with caution, but I discovered that the Asian chili paste called "sambal" which so thoroughly colored the cream also overwhelmed the flavor of the dish. Don't get me wrong, I like cayenne, but this made me cranky: I couldn't taste the garlic or the sausage, and as for the lobster allegedly in the cream sauce? Forget about it.
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I wouldn't call the oven-roasted lamb chops ($23) simple, either, more like overwrought, an orgy of strange bedfellows. The chops themselves, a thick, generous foursome, arrive still joined at the hip for the diner to separate as best she can, a difficult task given the dim lighting, a dull knife and a slippery rolling under-layer of al dente green beans. Once reduced to pieces, though, it's a very nice piece of lamb obediently cooked to order, only partially suffocated by breading strongly flavored with sage and mustard. Given my choice, I'd ditch the unnecessary breading and, while I'm at it, get rid of the obvious afterthought relish of roasted peppers, corn and black beans that's randomly tossed over the mound of food. (What do stray black beans bring to this party?) That would leave the excellent lamb chops and the astringently tart "wild berry demi," which, without the mustard to fight with, make a happier pairing. I'd keep the side order of blameless cheese grits, too, served creamy and fluffy in frill of lettuce.
Okay, so maybe I'm just too darn stuffy in such matters. My male dinner guests were thrilled by the plate-overflowing portions and over-the-top ingredient combinations served at Sonoma. They particularly loved the medieval-scale pork shanks ($15), and here I'd have to agree: They are outstanding. The similar treatment that works so well for veal shanks in osso buco is even better suited to the firmer-textured pork; hats off to DeLoach for introducing it here. The skin is crackly-crisp, as promised on the menu, and thanks to a gentle braising first, the meat within is tender and moist, the whole festooned with soft caramelized onions. The sweet potato "torte" that I'd call a tart is nonetheless a perfect partner for the pork, velvety-smooth in a shallow, flaky pastry crust and adamantly not too sweet; the accompanying asparagus stalks are fresh and crisp. And hey, the corn relish works with this dish, I'll be the first to admit.
We were also pleased with Sonoma's dessert selections, in particular the banana peanut-butter chocolate pie ($6.95). Yes, sometimes more is more: A rich, creamy peanut butter filling nestles between a chocolate cookie-crumb crust and a stiff chocolate fudge topping, with plenty of ripe bananas in between. We would have liked to try the key lime pie, too, but we were bluntly advised that the whole pie had just been dropped on the floor in the kitchen. Oops. Maybe next time.
Sonoma, 1415 California, (713)522-7066.