California dreamin': The tasteful décor at Sonoma is matched by the wine program--but the food, well...
California dreamin': The tasteful décor at Sonoma is matched by the wine program--but the food, well...
Stephen Karlisch


It's no surprise that a North Texas bedroom community would turn a California fascination into a viable business. After all, California is the American birthplace of dreams, fantasy and personal computer wizardry. Everyone wants to touch its gloss, to be a part of its vanguard, to have a grab at its sunny disposition before its stylish fruits trickle down to Wal-Mart. There's New York, and there's California. In between are clusters of second and third cities housing countless stepchildren with habits and dispositions that fuel bicoastal smugness: "Frisco" cafes, and Manhattan salons.

Why do we feel the need to mimic? Perhaps when one finally comes to terms with the fits of pedestrian envy California culture generates--at least when it comes to food (and transparent couture)--it's because it's so damn intelligent and stylish without the self-consciousness (at least on the plate). Its revolutionary temblors have ruffled toques as far away as Paris. California cuisine is characterized by a fetishistic drive for natural ingredients, a fancy for brick-oven pizzas with hand-tossed crusts and a penchant for mesclun salads with fresh herbs drizzled with inventive vinaigrettes, stuff now on saale at Wal-Mart (in the form of premixed bags of mesclun packed in bulk, for example). But what makes California so different from other culinary cultures (the French and Italians boast their fresh-food fetishes have fixated them for centuries) is its earth-shaking availability of produce. Side-by-side fields burst with artichokes, fava beans, haricots, Chinese broccoli, lemon grass, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint and bok choy (also available at Wal-Mart). And the temperate climate means this mania can be successfully sustained 300 days a year, which means you only have to eat from a can or a Happy Meal kit a scant 65 days per year.

So it's fair to say that Sonoma Grill & Wine Bar has laudable roots. The dining room is splashed in simple pale yellow with red wood trim, expansive windows and ceramic tile floors that grip earnestly at a sunny disposition. But it's Sonoma's wine program that is perhaps its most impressive asset. While nearly all of its selections are from California, and most are from Sonoma, it varies from the wearisome chard-merlot-cab paradigm somewhat with a Riesling, pinot gris and petite syrah tossed in here and there, yet it could stand a little more adventurousness. Still, it gets the simple things right. Pours are a full 7 ounces drained into Spiegelau crystal. And the glasses--from pinot noir to sauvignon blanc--are appropriate to the varietal, a rarity in most Dallas wine salons. It could stand more by-the-glass selections and some tasting flights, but those supposedly are coming.


Sonoma Grill 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$

Calamari: $7
Chicken soup: $4
Baby spinach salad: $5.50
Caesar salad: $4
Knights Valley pizza: $8
Paella: $17.50
Lamb chops: $21.50
Seared tuna: $19
Grilled swordfish: $18
Fresh berries: $5

The culinary arm is something else, though, a logic that's hard to decipher, though we probed earnestly. Fried calamari is a ubiquitous breaded oil-boiled beast infecting menus that posture, but don't think. Most examples don't even exploit the potential titillating culinary gore encapsulated in the clumps of spidery tentacles. No, these potentially spooky amputations are usually edited out, denying tongues everywhere the beauty of their lascivious, fuzzy tickle.

Fried calamari always creates an enduring tension in us: a desire for that creamy meat sown with a clean brininess opposed by a revulsion for the common sports-bar creepiness of a brittle and bland coating and oily dipping sauce that has the sensory appeal of pancake makeup. We opted to test the kitchen, in hope of an alternative to this omnipresent cliché. They delivered, with eloquence and verve. It arrived as a dull yellow puddle of butter-wine sauce floating garlic specks, tomato scraps and spinach tatters. The squid meat was cut into thin milky strips of totally nude flesh--the dining equivalent of porcelain feminine skin. The meat was tender and rich.

Now you would expect a kitchen that could riff like this to hit its notes without undue sweat or totters. But that's the Sonoma Grill/Texas conundrum. Virtually nothing else reached similar brilliance.

The roasted pepper and smoked chicken soup came close. A creamy mixture of chicken and mild California pepper, the goop was packed with an alluring tart smokiness and flavors that cut an unusual balance between the robust and the tepid.

Even fluff held its own. Baby spinach salad, flecked with sliced hearts of palm, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives, was layered with feathery iron-rich leaves drenched in exquisitely balanced ancho chile-honey vinaigrette.

Caesar salad, on the other hand, played it safe, with hearts of romaine splashed with dressing ripe with lemon but wimpy on anchovies. It came accompanied by some nice toast points, though.

Like all parched prairie California poseurs, Sonoma Grill has brick-oven pizzas--good pizzas with a thin crackery crust and adept blendings of topping goo. Knights Valley pizza is a bleached platform riddled with folds of prosciutto, spinach, artichoke hearts and a gentle drubbing of tangy garlic Alfredo. The only drawback was a stingy application of artichoke fragments.

Grilled Atlantic swordfish with a jalapeño, lemon butter and saffron and truffle risotto sounds more adventurous than it is. The fish was firm, fresh and tender, and the sauce didn't overwhelm its flavor, but nothing stood out either. True California cuisine evokes hushed whispers of reverence, whether it's the orgasmic convulsions induced by Thomas Keller's microscopic French Laundry musings or Alice Waters' fulminations over organic freshly yanked ingredients lovingly nurtured in bullshit, or at least kudzu mulch. It breaks barriers. It dazzles taste buds. It doesn't add weight to the eyelids.

This stuff mostly pretends. It's dangerous to flaunt "sushi grade" on a menu if your fin meat doesn't adequately meet the considerable challenges of serving a raw fish. The meat in the red curry-seared sushi-grade tuna with a wasabi soy sauce and fresh chive soy risotto was crumbly and dry; it separated into sections as if it were a slice of parched corned beef. It was also hard to pick out any wasabi, even though the green stuff was conspicuously listed on the menu.

In addition to flavor befuddlement, Sonoma also is a bit behind with its architecture. Tall food slipped from the gustatory radar screen years ago (so did leisure suits). Yet here it rears its heady spire. Two fresh mint-leaf-rubbed lamb chops were pressed together like a lean-to. And out of this structure of slants rose a long, twisted tortilla spike, a kind of maize drill bit. The lamb meat itself was timid in flavor and a little gooey and spongy--no structure other than the bone. This setup was anchored on a potato cake, a coarse, crumbly disc with weak adhesion and even weaker flavor.

Borrowing a little grape dirt romance, the wine country paella struggled with undercooked saffron risotto embedded with large but mostly tasteless shrimp, tough flavor-impaired mussels, juicy chicken, robust sausage and roma tomatoes and peas.

Dessert aimed for a simplicity and freshness Alice Waters might wink at. Raspberries, strawberries and blueberries were arranged in a spun-sugar lattice creel. The berries were fresh and plump, but the slightly yellowish cream topping brought the whole structure down. The substance was dense and inelegantly applied with a flavor reminiscent of Cool Whip.

Service was earnest and gracious, if young and inexperienced--the curse of the serious bedroom community dining room. Sonoma Grill is the work of Jan Zwerver, former partner and general manager of Mustang Café in Irving. To craft the cuisine, he enlisted chef Abraham Castillo, who has done time at Chamberlain's, Breadwinners and Popolos.

Yet while burgeoning with potential, Sonoma's grub seems too laden with self-consciousness, to the extent that the attempts at California mimicry become clumsy instead of seamless. The food should follow the wine program: Get the right shape and the right pour, and let the natural ingredients shine through.


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