California-Style Drama And Delicious Surprises
947 Penn Ave.
Open daily 11 am – 11 pm (dinner at 5 pm)
Entrees $12-$27 (larger sizes priced accordingly)
New cocktail list
Happy hour 5-7 pm
Smoking in lounge
"Why are you pulling out the coat rack?" quizzed a nearby table of gregarious eaters. "More like a ski jump," we retort as our proficient waiter set up a long, curved, wooden stave with protruding wrought-iron legs – the base of a dainty, eclectic tapas presentation. Flawless duck confit tortellini, smoked salmon and ahi tartare, lamb carpaccio with roasted eggplant and two lobster corn dogs with jalapeno and oven-roasted remoulade – fresh little samplings, as beautiful as food gets.
"Very Californian," intoned our neighbors, eyeing the assortment a little closer. By now my companion had tuned out of the conversation and turned to the second corn dog. "It’s the first time I’ve found anything that could complement lobster better than simple melted butter," he confessed, munching away on this culinary hybrid of lobster and salmon mousse on a stick, dipped in traditional corn-dog batter. A catchy domino effect was in high gear, as the table next to us ordered the iconoclastic tapas on sight, just as we had, minutes before.
Modern life has a way of clustering around trends of all sorts, and California is known for being a primary trendsetter, a repository of improvisation from the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on the south fork of the American River in 1848, to post-World War II boomers enamored of its temperate climate and dramatic geography. By the mid-20th century, San Francisco had become a mecca for experimentation and free thinking, enduring trademarks relevant
The wide open Sonoma Grille, located at street level adjacent to Pittsburgh’s new Courtyard by Marriott hotel, opened last December and was in "full stride by the end of January," says chef/owner Yves Carreau.
Vacant for the past decade, this space was reinvented by interior design firm Basic Concept Interiors to create a seamless conjoining of what previously had been four separate buildings. The building’s architecture firm, Perfido Weiskopf, was named the Historic Preservation Award winner in 2004 for its commitment to the building’s original character, and particularly, for the careful restoration of the rear staircase.
The restaurant’s high ceilings and textural earth tones reflect hues naturally occurring in the Sonoma countryside of northern California. A panoramic mural shows rolling fields and soldier-straight vineyard rows beneath a gargantuan sky. Diversionary entertainment includes bartenders intermittently impersonating Spiderman as they gracefully scale a floor-to-ceiling wine rack for the right vintage.
As reflected in its West Coast wine-country name, Sonoma places a strong emphasis on the grape. "Wine is fun," says managing partner and sommelier Uriel Marcovitz. "All those flavors and smells – chocolate, cherry, grapefruit. It’s magic to me."
Marcovitz says his wines by the glass are unparalleled in the city – 83 choices, soon to be increased – and they’re poured fresh each time, thanks to the "vacu vin" system, which pumps the air out and adds CO2. Turn over the menu to see an equally impressive reserve list. "We want to give people the opportunity to have many variables," says Marcovitz. "We have every great possibility, whether you’re looking for value or just focusing on the wine." Servers have the opportunity to learn about the varietals, too, during their weekly wine tastings.
A fresh, modular approach to food accurately presents California’s bistro cuisine. The menu is in a creative tabular format that subdivides by styles of food with wine accompaniments. In a move that takes the fear out of being creative, emotive adjectives define each category: descriptions include "spicy and muscular" for meat, and "fruity and jammy" for fish.
The chef’s intention is to have you think outside the box – start anywhere on the menu and work your way around, ordering according to your mood or appetite that evening. "Make what you want out of it for total satisfaction," says Carreau. "People catch on and understand the possibilities, then can’t wait to come back. They fall in love with the concept." Take some time, tone down your left brain and improvise; mix, match and exchange.
Midway down the menu, the chef makes an offer: "If you like surprises, then let me decide what’s on your plate this evening – even your server may not know until he or she serves it."
California cuisine, initially minted as light and simple, blessed by a long growing season, has fully emerged, with more sophistication and complexity, including clear, piercing flavors and heady spices – curries, jícama root, ginger or lemon grass, to name a few – and even South American, Asian and Caribbean influences.
Our server pushed the popular Sonoma mixed grille. Make it as pure or as elaborate as you please by building a combination from 10 choices, which include char-grilled salmon, spicy pork tenderloin and seared ahi tuna. Select three meat or seafood "starters," then add six sensuous dipping sauces and a side. The house makes four different stocks and all its sauces from scratch every day.
Carreau’s mischievous, ethereal "Study of Duck," prepared three ways, is his "baby." While there aren’t many sweet sauces in French cooking, this duck dish is an exception. The trio offers a breast, seared medium-rare with lightly stewed apple-mango compote, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and embellished with a pomegranate/cranberry gastrique. For contrast, smoky duck confit dim sums are sautéed with fresh spinach over stewed twin cabbages with apple wood-smoked bacon and pinot-noir duck jus. Extraordinarily large, hand-harvested, Serrano-wrapped diver scallops, juices intact, quickly seared, are perfect alongside wilted spinach, salty and blunt against sherry papaya gastrique. Shrimp tempura defies ubiquity with a thick blood-orange and long-reduced apricot chutney to brighten the pink prawns. Sesame oil takes over an avalanche of crunchy slaw for an Asian profile, avoiding the sometimes over-vinegary errors of its peers around town.
We bounced back and forth among dessert selections and never caught our server frowning before we settled on in-house pastry chef Kelly Bannon’s profiteroles (sold out at other visits), puff pastries filled with rich vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate and caramel ganache. A lemon tarte is already stashed away for a summer day, while a sublime mini-chocolate merlot cake with minted berries and more ice cream is pristine yet brilliantly intense.
We lingered briefly, mesmerized by the ever-changing scene that unfolds along the downtown street and sidewalks on the other side of the glass. On our side we predicted change as well. "It may be hard to go back to your old ways," said my companion. And that is just the point.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
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