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Sonoma: Worth the Wait

Capitol Hill Wine Bar Draws Big Crowd — With Good Reason

It’s a Friday night at Capitol Hill’s hottest new hangout, and the bar in the narrow space is packed four deep. Waiters jostle through the lively crowd, and bartenders pour glass after glass of wine from a sleek case behind the bar. Reservations on weekends are already a must.

It didn’t take long for Sonoma, which opened in May, to win the hearts of both the residents who make Capitol Hill their home and those who work here. And with a newly

opened upstairs lounge, Sonoma is poised to become an even more appealing neighborhood hangout. [IMGCAP(1)]

A large part of Sonoma’s draw is its user-friendly wine program, which allows diners to buy tastes for just a few dollars. And while it’s standard practice to supply a table with one wine list at most restaurants, it struck me as I was taking too much time to read through the list that Sonoma should consider giving each diner a menu. With around 40 wines available by the glass, thanks to the airtight Winekeeper taps behind the bar, chances are you might like to try several different wines over the course of a meal. And having your own wine list would allow you to take your time reading over the selection without holding up the rest of the table.

But let the selfishness end there. Sonoma’s menu is designed for diners who like to share and taste multiple dishes during a meal.

The first half of the menu is devoted to a thoughtful selection of cheese and charcuterie, like pâté, prosciutto and salami. To accompany the meats and cheeses, the menu also offers “accents,” which include housemade wine jellies, herbed nuts and other sweet and savory garnishes. Wine steeped figs and tart pickled local scallions were especially delightful on one visit.

You could easily make a meal out of platters filled with cheese and meats, as a table next to mine did one night. All heads turned as the waiters delivered two oversized wooden boards, piled high with meats, cheese and bread, to the table. “What’s that?” a gentleman seated nearby asked his waiter curiously.

But there’s much more to explore on the seasonal menu, which changes frequently. With an admirable commitment to organic and local products, Chef Drew Trautmann has crafted an Italian-accented menu of appetizer-sized “firsts” and larger “seconds.”

Following the Italian tradition, pastas make up most of the firsts. Earthy oyster mushrooms pair with cauliflower in a small dish of ravioli, and rustic housemade boar sausage is crumbled atop bucatini.

Highlights among the firsts include an excellent black risotto studded with calamari and tiny chunks of smoked prosciutto, which give the dish a smoky depth, and baby eggplant parmesan, which is thinly sliced and fanned out across the plate.

The kitchen seems to still be working on quality control. One night’s ravioli was tender, while another night’s was rubbery around the edges. Potato gnocchi were so irregularly shaped that the larger pieces were gummy, while the smaller were nicely done. An aromatic saffron reduction managed to salvage the dish, however.

Of the larger second courses, an expertly cooked whole red snapper stole the show one evening. Its crisp skin was nicely seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon, and its tender white meat was moist and flaky. Other standouts include a tiny quail, glazed with honey mustard and served on a bed of fresh greens, and seared scallops served atop a bright green pea purée.

The only disappointment was marinated octopus with fingerling potatoes and olives. The octopus tasted past its prime.

A collection of simple desserts rounds out the menu. Don’t miss the incredibly nutty pistachio ice cream, surrounded by a handful of pistachios and drizzled with caramel. Vanilla panna cotta, another straightforward ending, is enlivened by fresh berries.

If you’re not too stuffed, head upstairs for more wine in Sonoma’s lounge. The attractive upstairs space, open nightly at 5 p.m., offers creamy, plush couches and low tables for kicking back with a glass of wine. You can bet that a seat in front of the lounge’s fireplace will be one of the most sought-after spots in town when the chill of fall sets in. Cheese and charcuterie plates and a limited selection of wines by the glass are also available upstairs.

For all its early popularity, Sonoma still has more than a few kinks to iron out before it realizes its full potential. The wait staff is casual and friendly, but when the restaurant is slammed, and it often is, inexperience becomes an issue.

But my biggest qualm doesn’t relate to food or service, but to the bizarre bathroom setup.

Sonoma’s puzzling unisex bathroom on the main floor contains two toilets, partially obscured by partitions — the key word being partially. A sign on the inside of the door instructs patrons to lock the door. This bathroom was built for women who go to the restroom together … and no one else. “There’s always a line,” our waitress told us, with a hint of exasperation in her voice. And that line? It forms precariously close to the constantly swinging kitchen doors.

Manager Troy Bock explained that because people were so eager for Sonoma to open, some construction was put on hold in the interest of time. Two more restrooms are in the works upstairs, which should help alleviate the wait for the main floor restroom. “Everything now is still kind of a work in progress,” Bock added.

With an improved restroom situation and time to get its staff up to speed, Sonoma should settle into a comfortable groove as the local wine bar so many Capitol Hill neighbors have been dreaming of.

223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Phone number: (202) 544-8088
Reservations: Highly recommended
Prices: Second courses $8-$20
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5:30-10 p.m.; lounge and bar open at 5 p.m.
Of note: Sonoma boasts about 40 wines by the glass and an attractive upstairs lounge, complete with a working fireplace. Bottom line: Just blocks from the Capitol, Sonoma is a welcome addition to the Hill dining scene, offering an enticing menu and a user-friendly wine program.