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.
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.