The Sonoma Grille

By | November 30, 2010

The Sonoma Grille
947 Penn Ave
Downtown, 15222
(412) 697-1336 (Full Menu)
Open Daily: Lunch 11-3; Dinner 5-11

So a funny thing happened to me on the way to the internet forum. I got asked to do a tasting for a restaurant! Like, it gets paid for and I get a $25 gift certificate to give one of yinz readers!! (hang tight till the end of the review to find out how to win!) I find this funny because, well, my whole reason I am doing this site is because I love food and not because I want to make any kind of money or fame (though some money might support my ability to actually eat out anywhere, hint hint), and so the review writing style is goofy as hell and therefore it surprises me that I got picked up on enough to get asked to do something professional-seeming like this. In any case, I was invited to taste and review The Sonoma Grille, in downtown Pittsburgh. And I gotta say, out of the Pittsburgh restaurants downtown, I think it’s not half bad. Which, by my calculations, makes it at least greater-than-half good. Even with the caveat that I was essentially paid to write this review whilst they got to put their prettiest pedicured foot forward.

Like so many of the fine-ish dining places in Pittsburgh, Sonoma Grille flirts dangerously with what I call the Quality-Expectation Interaction. By this I essentially mean that when there is even a particle of an air of grandeur to a Pittsburgh restaurant, there is an increased probability of meal mediocrity. Check out this graph:

First thing to notice is that this is not just a plot of food quality as ‘yum vs. blarg’. This is a plot of the probability of perceived food quality given one’s prior expectation of what the food quality is going to be. It is an important distinction, because a large part of why we like or dislike foods has to do with our imaginations of what the food is going to be like once we are eating it. For example, I can’t help but feel a little secretly disappointed at Kaya a lot of the time, because the description of the meal and its delectable ingredients is often better than the meal itself (I know someone out there agrees with me!!). Maybe I just have incredibly high standards, but if you explicitly make the meal sound good, or you implicitly make it seem like it must be good by slapping a high price onto it, then it ought to be at least as good as the advertising suggests, if not mind-blowing.

Oh, but it so rarely is. So on the graph, basically, the more of a hole-in-the-wall a place is, the better the food is guaranteed to be. The fancier the place, the more likely it is to be mediocre. There’s a bunch of places in the middle that are hard to categorize because they are inconsistent, as groups, at matching their quality with the expectations. Like, some sports bars have awesome food and are nice to hang out in, but also lots have just one or the other of those things. Compare that to a category like ethnic hole-in-the-wall restaurants, which, as a group, tend to be consistently good. Then on the other end of the spectrum, I argue that fancy places can be clearly clustered into two groups, with a heavy density of blarg-I-can’t-believe-I-paid-so-much-money-for-that-but-its-still-kinda-baseline-ok. However, there does exist that outlier cluster. They *can* be good, but the predominant category, at least in Pittsburgh, is pretty lame for the amount of money they make you pay. I can only assume that this stems from the bank-Pittsburghers continuing to patron expensive restaurants in spite of their tendency to be mediocre, though I don’t know exactly why. It doesn’t really make sense that they’d just want to pay exorbitant amounts of money for food, no matter the quality, but I do suppose that maybe they like the feel of going out to fancy restaurants but because there aren’t too many good ones the mediocre ones get a natural boost just because we crave variety? I really don’t know but there’s some kind of restaurant evolutionary pressure goin’ on in this town for sure, to be explored in other posts.

ANYway, what does any of that have to do with Sonoma Grille? Well here is the graph again with Sonoma plotted on it – near the upper edge of really-good-for-the-price-but-not-consistently-exceptional.

Awww gad it sounds like I am such a harsh critic! Well, I sort of am. If my money and my calories are going somewhere it better be damn good. Now, I said that Sonoma is not consistently exceptional. For example, one of the courses they brought out was an Avocado and Crabmeat Tian, which is like a mixture of chunks of avocado, tomato, and onion (basically an unmashed guacamole) on a crunchy crostini type of disc with some spicy aioli underneath and big chunks of crab on top. This dish is, in my opinion, pretty stereotypical to the whole Californian cuisine thang. Not that they have to be a super inventive restaurant or anything, but there was nothing remarkable about the idea of this dish. It comes straight off the Sonoma-california-dining-experience-concept. In execution, I think the non-guac was nothing more than the sum of its parts (although each part was individually exceptional). The crispy disc thing added a lot to the texture, but then it was the spicy aioli that carried the dish to greatness. The combination did not quite converge to one tight flavor package – and I probably wouldn’t get it again for that reason– but it was alright. The crab meat itself was exceptional, sweet and not too wet but still succulent. Just that meat in isolation was my favorite part of this dish.

Another dish they served us that I had mixed feelings about was the Char Su Duck. This was SOOOOO good, I mean, the duck specifically. The waiter (who was awesome and excited as F’ about his job) was explaining the cooking process and why it is particularly suitable to the duck dish, because it has delicious effects on the skin and flavor of the meat. And that it did. This dish was essentially a Peking Duck style and flavor; again not super original, but super delicious. The skin was truly amazing. It was extremely crispy-chewy, a rare but coveted combo. It was the kind of thing where it gets stuck in your molars and you get to enjoy its savoriness for a while after your meal has already come and gone. Sorry if that grosses anyone out, but to be perfectly truthful, I think this is a positive attribute and I was super happy with this aspect of the dish. The aspect I was less happy about was the overall design of the entrée, as it sat atop a bed of aromatic rice with a garnish of some string bean-y thing. There was NOTHING wrong with the flavor of these items, they too were also delicious (the rice had a nice, strong ginger finish to it); however, if I were to order this as a meal instead of as the taster’s sample I received, I would have been a bit disappointed in the relative ubiquity of the flavor palate. For an entrée, I look for a more dynamic range so that I am not over it by the last bite. I guess it just seemed a bit too plain overall to be placed as an entrée. However, if you could get it as an appetizer (or, I hate to say it, ate it tapas style) it would be absolutely freakin’ perfect.

I guess another way to put my conceptualization of a viable entrée is that it should cause me to have the feeling of “oh god, I never want this to end!!” And then maybe a, “mmmm, oooh baby yahhhhhh right there.” And while I didn’t get that vibe from the Char Su Duck, I DEFINITELY DID from the Moroccan Braised Lamb Ravioli! Oh wow – this was SO great. Even my dining companion, who is a self-reported food novice and relatively tentative to try new foods, found this to be explosively good. The mixture of all the ingredients was transcendent. Basically, set before us were multi-bite pasta pillows of warmly-spiced tender lamb (cardamom, nutmeg, clove, etc, succulently braised into the meat), covered with a pile of deliciousness that consisted of San Marzano tomatoes (the best tomatoes out of Italy, in case you don’t know, and you should buy them in cans for home cooking, if you can find them, because I promise you that your tomato-based chili, soup, or sauce will never have tasted brighter), and then all this other stuff mixed in, like dates and, strangely, capers. The capers could seem the odd man out, a salty burst amongst otherwise harmonious warm flavors, but they were sparingly used and sneakily created the perfect balance. The whole contraption was laid on top of a minty cucumber yogurty drizzle that complemented the overall landscape of the dish like it was the Pacific Ocean accepting the setting sun of Casablanca into its evening embrace. This was by far my favorite thing that we ate and exemplarily achieves my ideal entrée as a dish of ingredients melding together such that you forget its components ever existed as individuals. A marriage that could last beyond its 75th anniversary, you could say. Sincere thanks to the chef on this concoction – if I ever have the money I will definitely be back to delight in this dish, strongly reminiscent of a top 5 meal of my life at a Moroccan Tagine resaurant in Paris.

As long as I am talking about things I was impressed by, I’ll also mention that the Local Beet Salad, which was topped with candied pecans and feta, was earthy, bright, and creamy-savory all at once, and the beets were just al dente in the most pleasing way. This dish, although also not particularly original, was well executed and I wholeheartedly recommend it if you are into that sort of thing. There was also a delightful little amuse-bouche springroll type of thing stuffed with mushrooms on top of a slightly spicy sauce, which was an excellent little mouthful to start the whole meal adventure with. I also, generally, really like that they try to use local ingredients as much as possible, a la the Sonoma County slow-food dining philosophy. In the fertile land that is California, this style of sustainable restauranteuring is more easily achievable; however, Pittsburgh and its surrounding countryside pose a significantly more challenging environment. Kudos to their effort – even if their radius of ‘local’ is a bit wide, it is a major bonus in my book (although they got lucky that the darling of America’s-High-End-Restaurant-Lamb is Jamison Farms, not 40 miles from us in Latrobe, PA. Or maybe it’s more like we got lucky…).

Overall, I think Sonoma Grille is commendable on several fronts, albeit lacking in some ingenuity. Always, all the components of each dish are delectable and perfected, but their convergence to an upper stratosphere of flavor coherence isn’t guaranteed. However, for some dishes they really hit that superior stride, and for those I’d come back and spend my real hard-earned cash. And I promise you – I will – because they’ll be getting a second review as soon as they’ve forgotten who I am and I can get the standard rando plebe treatment sans delicious promotional meal.

And for that moment, I can’t wait! (MMMMM more lamb ravioli!!)

* OMGplzgetanorderofthe Moroccan Braised Lamb Ravioli
* Based purely on my assessment of this restaurant’s capabilities and not at all on having actually had it, I’d wager that the Prosciutto Wrapped Diver Scallops would be excellent. (1) The chef is very careful with the cooking of the meats, (2) the prosciutto is from La Quercia Farms, which is an excellent purveyor of preserved pork products and you should consider ordering a little baggie of prosciutto side bits or speck from them, for adding into any old omelet you might cook on a Sunday or a browned butter and fresh pasta dish, and (3) diver scallops are the bomb dot com.

The ice cream sandwich trio dessert – had structural problems, as some cookies were too hard to cut through with a fork, the ice cream was then hard to handle in conjunction with that, and one of the flavor combos was just kinda unappealing. Though if you can just get a scoop of the probably-seasonal pumpkin ice cream, DEF do it!

This ain’t so sneaky I guess, but they will do wine pairings with your meal, and our waiter had excellent, excellent taste in wine and a deep, thorough understanding of the relationship of many of the wines to the specific items on the menu. In some cases, I felt almost as if the food complemented the wine, more than the other way around. Certainly, the wine that went with the Beet Salad was much improved during the eating of the beets. Other times it was more of a two-way street, as the Avocado and Crab Tian seemed to have a mutual understanding with the white wine paired with it. The Tian benefitted from this pairing in such a cohesive way, it was almost as if the wine was the piece I had been missing upon eating it in isolation – the rug that tied the f’in room together. Any which way, if you are interested in splurging on an actual quality wine-food pairing, hit up Sonoma Grille, and a tall guy named Eric specifically.

And finally…..

I liked that dang Moroccan Lamb Ravioli so much that I now want to eat odd, interesting raviolis all the time! But, where have all the interesting raviolis gone? I need YOU to tell me. Leave a comment with your favorite odd or interesting ravioli that you’ve eaten in Pittsburgh. If you just have had exceptional ravioli that’s not so odd but you think needs representation, send that along instead. You have till January, at which time I will commence eating said raviolis and determining whose recommendation I like best. And whoever that is – gets $25 for Sonoma Grille! BY the way, the suggestions are first-come-first-serve, so if two people suggest a place, then the first one gets the credit. Sorry dudes.