Friday, November 19, 2010

Restuarant Review: Sonoma Grille

(See Gift Card Sweepstakes details at bottom!)

Pittsburgh City Council member Bill Peduto has suggested that one reason to continue significantly subsidizing the cost of parking, despite the city's $800 million pensions deficit, is that cheaper parking can entice people to come Downtown and enjoy a restaurant they might not otherwise visit.

Another way this can be accomplished is to write a monstrously powerful political blog, and thereby have the folks at Näkturnal marketing suddenly start arranging for you complimentary tastings at Pittsburgh restaurants, along with giveaways for your readers -- all for the privilege of having that experience written up online. One of these days I look forward to universally panning one of these eateries, but that most definitely will not be occurring in regards to the Sonoma Grille.

I'd passed the facade of 947 Penn Ave. on many occasions, and always thought to myself, "Man, look at that ritzy restaurant, with all the fancy people inside!" Turns out that impression is more a function of the three-martini lunchtime crowd and the nearby Federal Building. On this Monday evening, families were dressed rather casually, several with babies, and the radio was tuned to whatever is the satellite equivalent of rhythm & bluesy WDVE. Two flat screens above the bar were set to ESPN in advance of Monday Night Football.

Dinner entrees at Sonoma run about $26, with the filet mignon topping out at $34. Salad courses will put you back an extra $8 or $9 -- that's how they get you -- but I grabbed a lunch menu and discovered you can get a sandwich or an omelet for just ten bucks.

Sonoma's wine list is somewhere in the vicinity of 400 varieties deep, a major feature of this "wine bistro". I was also shocked to learn that they serve regionally grown and organic ingredients mainly, which is to say most of the time -- though my server James was quickly able to rattle off a few instances where that was not possible, and it's not treated quite like an emergency. The cuisine is described as "West Coast" or "California", with occasional French notes owing to the owner's background.

This is what I ordered, and what I thought about it:

  • Avocado and Crabmeet Tian: This appetizer had the appearance of green cat food with a cucumber garnish on the side, yet was, well, a tangy and exciting mix of avocado, crabmeat and chili oil. I yearned for a second can.
  • Beet Salad: This was the sleeper highlight of the meal, of a deliciousness entirely out-of-proportion for something called "beet salad". I expected a mixed greens salad with some beets in it, but no, the salad was made entirely of honey-glazed beets. And pecans. And feta cheese. That's pretty much it, but somehow the combination of these flavors produced a savory alchemy I am intent on reproducing in my own kitchen, for the reaping of massive dividends. Oh yes.
  • Lamb Ravioli: These were just plain fun-tasting. It was somehow pleasantly greasy yet unmistakably healthful at the same time, what with the cucumber-yogurt sauce. James informed me for example that this dish had its origins in Jamison Lamb Farm and the Allegheny Creamery.
  • Char Su Duck: If fancy-pants food is not for you, enjoy these barbecue chicken wings served on a bed of stir fry. Or if you dig duck, enjoy gnawing away on the perfectly prepared and crispy duck skins.
  • Carmel Creme Brulee: Oh, geez. Served with individually and delicately caramelized thin slices of apple, and a modest cookie for dipping. It's just lasciviously indulgent, but somehow packed into a dishware dainty enough that it appears you're being dignified and reserved.

There is so much to try and it all tastes so varied and fun, I actually recommend ordering the "tasting" yourself, enabling you to sample smaller portions of 3, 4 or 5 dishes at $35, $45 and $55 respectively. I have a prodigious appetite and the 5 dish sampler filled me up entirely; ordinary diners if they are friendly and stack up on entree selections will probably be able to split a fiver contentedly.

The ambiance, though elegant, is wide-open and roomy, and the dining room stayed well-lit even after nine o'clock. I'd classify the Sonoma Grille not as much a first-date place as a double-date place or a bring-your-out-of-town-friends-over-Thanksgiving place. There are only so many times you can go back to that one Shadyside bar which used to serve you and your cronies alcohol with your bad fake IDs. This year, show those diasporans how Pittsburgh is passing them by.


And now, THE GIVEAWAY. Sonoma Grille has furnished us with a $25 gift card. To win it, leave a comment under this post with a unique handle, or an e-mail address in the body or the URL field; something enabling me to say, "Schploopjuice017 won the contest!" so that person can at least e-mail me. If you are a notable public figure, well, use an alias and when we connect over e-mail I promise to protect the facade that you don't read blogs. If you're absolutely paranoid we can arrange a dead-drop.

One entry per person. To enter, leave a comment answering the question, "If I could ask any political, business or non-profit figure in the region any question, what would it be?" I will select the winner via random number generator. Monk, you may enter this contest, provided you can keep your entry clean and under a dozen total lines of text. Winner announced Monday at 5:00 PM.


  1. To Paul O'Neill: Should we invest in transportation infrastructure as part of a continuing stimulus program, starting with bridge inspection and repair and going from there and targeting hiring people without high school degrees (because that group has the highest unemployment rate), *or* should we concentrate on reducing our deficit/debt?

    Does that qualify as an entry? What are the chances I could actually ask the question?

    Is my Google account handle a sufficient identifier? I think you can get to my email address.

  2. Ed - That is a textbook entry. And I know you. I'm not sure of MY chances of getting next to Paul O'Neil, but if I do I can note that the query originates from the right honorable author of Cognitive Dissonance. You don't have to win the contest to earn that door prize; this is just a cheap way for me to gather good interview ideas.

  3. To David L. Porges, President and Chief Executive Officer, EQT

    What is the overall timetable for modernizing residential gas lines in the EQT service area?

  4. Ummm. Do I have to? What question would I ask...I don't know! The snarky question that comes to mind I can't post...For once I cannot think of anything to say, nor am I curious about anything. How about I'd ask either Infinonymous or the Angry Drunken Bureaucrat to tell me who they are. I know they aren't business/non-profit/or political figures...or ARE they?

  5. To Whom it may concern:

    Why do people keep crashing into the Giant Eagle by my house?

  6. Hey, Luke...

    Exactly what did happen when you flew to NYC on Buerkle's plane?

    [Actually, none of the local politicians even merit me taking time to ask them a question. They're all Democrats (mostly) that get elected and stay elected because the sheeple in the City and/or Western PA only know one thing - Pull the D lever! Or, with today's machines - Press D!]

  7. $25

    See above entry Anon 4:58.

    Bought the new tube, went with Samsung Cell: Big Keys.

    30 year old co-worker went with a Driod?

    F-22 Fighter wreckage was discovered! Big money solution, pre drone...


    ...Ejection Seat Protacol, I hope

  8. Perhaps, if Infinonymous takes the certificate and destroys it, it could be like this never happened?

  9. Is that an entry? I'm going to count it as one because it decreases Monk's chances by about 10% presently.

  10. Dear representatives of PA in Harrisburg: Do you genuinely believe it is in your constituents' best interests to continue to have the Commonwealth regulate the selling and distribution of alcohol?

    Please work with the governor elect to privatize this ASAP!

    (I am shocked, and hopeful, at the low volume of responses- great restaurant)

  11. CM, if you could be guaranteed an answer, that is a great question (even if you aren't guaranteed an answer).

  12. The question I would ask is this:

    "Given the demographic trends in aging populations, especially in urban areas, isn't it now imperative that we make massive investments in public transit and genuinely move toward more walkable neighborhoods Citywide?"

    This is a question I would ask the state House of representatives and Senate and Governor-elect Corbett