Favorite
Location: 947 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-697-1336
Hours: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-10; entrees, $12-23
Fare: Californian
Atmosphere: Also Californian
Liquor: Full bar, many wines

It seemed obvious to us that a restaurant called Sonoma Grille must feature California food and wine. What was less obvious was exactly what we should expect from this new dining spot between the Cultural District and the Convention Center. Would it be Sideways pretentious or Marin mellow? Invoke the splashy culture of the coast or the cosmopolitan vibe of the city? Or was it simply about Pittsburghers just trying to keep up?

Turns out, Sonoma Grille fulfills none of the above stereotypes. The first-floor tenant of Downtown's new Marriott hotel, the restaurant occupies an airy, high-ceilinged space in a restored Beaux Arts building. Its décor struck us as unnecessarily literal in its attempt to transport us to sunny California -- a wine-estate courtyard recreated indoors, complete with faux windows and awnings -- but the warm colors and lighting manage to deflect the depressive effects of a typically gray Pittsburgh evening outside.

What really feels fresh is the menu. Sonoma proprietor Yves Carreau takes a thematic approach, grouping foods and selected wines (mostly Californian, of course) under descriptive summaries comprised of oenophilic terms like "jammy" and "muscular." The descriptions apply to both the dishes and the wines, encouraging an entirely new approach to food selection, and providing a thoughtful assist to those who might feel intimidated by pairing wines with their meals. What's more, portions -- and prices -- here are intentionally reduced in order to encourage diners to sample around the menu. That said, this is not a "small plates"' approach to dinner, and we found the amount of food served in each dish more than adequate.

For our appetizer, we couldn't resist the tapas platter, an array of tiny plates dramatically arrayed on a curved oak-barrel stave. Lobster "corndogs" were tender, fluffy and light as clouds. Tiny fish tacos, consisting of nuggets of lightly breaded and fried white fish on tortilla triangles with salsa, little leaves of lettuce, and chunks of avocado, were exactly as good as the sum of all their parts, which is to say, very good. Duck confit tortellini with braised napa and red cabbage, applewood smoked bacon, and pinot noir and duck jus struck Jason as bland, but Angelique found them hearty and rich even without the sauce. The subtle flavor of lamb carpaccio was overwhelmed by the spiciness of its accompaniment of eggplant, tahini and red pepper oil, while ahi tuna tartare was served with a clashing combination of seaweed and capers.

After identifying her appetite as "spicy, muscular and bold," Angelique selected garam masala scented lamb loin from the so-named section of the menu. Pliant medallions of lamb were crusted with sub-continental spices and cooked to the perfect point of brownness on the outside, pinkness in the center. Cumin-infused lamb jus and red pepper cardamom coulis complemented the hearty, earthy flavor of the meat. A basmati and black bean pilaf was on the dry side, but cucumber and jicama raita served as a cool counterpoint to the spices' equatorial heat.

Outside of the regular menu categories, there's a mix-n-match, create-your-own section for mixed grill. Selecting from 10 meats, seven sauces and three sides, Jason chose bacon-wrapped veal tournedos with a tamarind-ginger sauce and herb-grilled Amish chicken with a green spicy herb sauce. The accompanying fettuccine with tomato and basil was unremarkable, but the meats and sauces were excellent. Sweet tamarind kept the savory bacon from overwhelming the mild, tender veal, while the chicken was just as good in its cooking herbs as it was dipped in the slightly spicy sauce.

Though we had neglected to save room for dessert, we never let that stop us from ordering it. Flourless chocolate torte was not too sweet with a dry crumb; scoops of rich vanilla ice cream provided all the moisture this excellent confection required.

Overall, our dining experience at Sonoma Grille was practically flawless, smoothing out any imperfections in our actual meals. The restaurant's offerings are varied without being overwhelming, service is outstanding, and the menu innovations are useful as well as clever. Spring may be a season when the West cannot compare with the East, but there's never a bad time to visit Sonoma.

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars

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