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Restaurant Reviews

Aged to Perfection

So you're youngish, you think you're pretty darn cool, and you're shopping for dinner at the Publix in the Village Square Plaza in Boynton Beach when you notice Sonoma Grille. You're surprised, because the high-ceilinged bistro, with its widely spaced oil paintings on the walls and closely spaced tables on the tile floor, is an anomaly in this sleepy suburban shopping center. Sonoma Grille, with its seafood risotto-and-veal Florentine menu, might be better suited to, say, downtown Delray Beach.

But you're intrigued enough by the contemporary décor and menu to scrap your plans for a supper of a Marie Callender's potpie (followed by a pint of that new Häagen-Dazs hazelnut gelato) and see if you can score a table. You enter, scan the crowd, and stop in your tracks: Every table is filled, and not one of the patrons looks to be under retirement age. You have accidentally stumbled into the Florida of old -- and I do mean old. You beat a hasty retreat to the frozen-food section and congratulate yourself on your narrow escape.

Well, not so fast, whippersnapper. If you blow off Sonoma Grille, you're blowing a chance at a great -- and reasonably priced -- meal.

Why do South Florida's self-styled hipsters inversely equate the average age of a dining crowd to the level of sophistication they can expect from a meal? Just because older folk sometimes have to budget their fixed incomes and shop for restaurants that serve value, should we uniformly avoid the places that cater to them?

If you share these ageist assumptions, don't bother going to Sonoma Grille. But those of us who believe just the opposite -- that the older a restaurant patron is, the more likely he or she will know how to appreciate, say, the mussels Provençal appetizer (which arrived at our table steaming a perfume of Pernod into the air) -- don't want you there. You'd just ruin the vibe.

And make no mistake, there's plenty of vibe here, and it has nothing to do with the shrieking of multiple hearing aids. Sonoma Grille does offer "sunset specials" -- which average around $14 and come with soup or salad, potato and vegetable, nonalcoholic beverage, and dessert -- and opens for dinner at 4 p.m. But the regular dinners, which average only a couple of bucks more, include the above sans soda and sweet, which means that you're still getting plenty to eat -- and portion sizes, like the noise level here, exceed expectations. Indeed you should even make a reservation. The restaurant is crowded not just for early birds but all evening, till it closes at 10 p.m.

The reason Sonoma has been such a success since the proprietors (who also own Mamma Mia, an Italian restaurant around the corner) opened it in March 2000 is pretty clear. The eatery has no liquor but compensates with a well-chosen and reasonably priced wine list that covers international ground rather than its namesake region; try an Australian Riesling for $21. It also offers the kind of fare people truly like to eat: to wit, a perfectly roasted chicken. My dining companions often laugh at me when I order poultry as a main course in a fine-dining restaurant, but I consider it the best barometer of kitchen expertise. This herb-marinated bird was ideal, with skin so crisp it crackled like cellophane and meat slick with juices underneath. A puddle of lemon-thyme broth, ostensibly for moistening the chicken, wasn't necessary, but it was delightful regardless, especially when paired with some of the best garlic smashed potatoes I've had in years.

The potatoes accompany all entrées, along with a fresh vegetable of the day (ours was zucchini), a fact of which the waitress will inform you upfront when you order. She'll also helpfully guide you through the menu, giving her opinion on the best items. One of these dishes is undoubtedly Wiener schnitzel. Two veal cutlets, pounded but still relatively hefty, had been breaded and pan-fried in what tasted like an entire stick of butter, but they weren't greasy, and the coating stood away from the meat just slightly, indicating a fresh preparation. The German-style preparation is not billed on the menu, but the server might ask you if you'd like it that way. This means a fried egg, over-easy, is laid across the cutlets, a contrasting textural blanket, and the yolk, when pierced, adds even more richness to the buttery meat. The schnitzel is garnished with a pinwheel of lemon, divided like a pie chart with horseradish and caper condiments.

Blackboard specials are worth investigating as well. We had the good fortune to encounter a snapper fillet endowed with roasted garlic and mushrooms, a combination that enhanced the sweetly fleshed fish. We were slightly worried about the rib eye special, topped with a portobello mushroom gravy, because my companion ordered it well done. In Kitchen Confidential, author and chef Anthony Bourdain scared us all when he revealed that patrons who asked for their meat cooked through got the poorest cuts in the restaurant. That's just plain not true at Sonoma, however. The meat, which had been glazed, was not only cooked to specifications but retained its tenderness.

My complaints are few. The wild-mushroom strudel was simply too large -- three long rolls of phyllo dough stuffed with mushrooms and topped with roasted shallots and a mild mustard sauce -- to be consumed as an appetizer. Ditto the stuffed mushrooms, which had a similar flavor to the strudel but too little crabmeat in the filling.

We also had an overeager busser, who seemed irritated when she would ask if we were done with a plate and we'd say no. Sometimes she'd even wait by a neighboring table until we'd taken the last bite, then snatch the plate away before our forks even came to rest. In fact service, while friendly and well-intentioned, isn't as highbrow as it should be. Our waitress kept calling the soup of the day a "bohemian" conch chowder, though I suspect she meant Bahamian; either way it was awful, so redolent of celery that all other flavors were obscured. Also at issue: do-it-yourself doggy bags. While Sonoma Grille is not an expensive restaurant in the terms we understand these days, it is pricey enough that the niceties of service -- such as packing your leftovers in the kitchen -- should be done for you.

Not everything is made on the premises, including mundane salad dressings, with the exception of an orange-shallot vinaigrette, and uninspiring desserts. At least they sound uninspiring. But a slice of chocolate layer cake proved to be a moist, fudgy treat that was actually too rich to finish. Match it with a good cup of cappuccino, and you have a pleasant cap to an evening at Sonoma Grille, a restaurant where seniority comes not from the age of its patrons but from its unexpected gourmet status.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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