A taste of California on the plate and in the glass

Hill dining has improved remarkably in recent years with the arrival of Montmarte and Belga Caf� near Eastern Market. But not since Bistro Bis opened in 1998 or Charlie Palmer in 2003 has a restaurant within easy walking distance of the Capitol arrived with as much buzz or as much early success as Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar.

The owners took over the space vacated by Roberto Donna’s two Capitol Hill eateries, Barolo and Il Radicchio, along Pennsylvania Avenue and set about reworking them into one unified space that feels a bit more industrial chic than anything else on the Hill.

As far as what’s on the plate and in the glass, Sonoma very neatly mimics its sister restaurant, Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar in Georgetown: a California-Italy-inspired hybrid of smallish plates paired with a well-selected, extensive list of wines by the glass.

Despite the recycled space and recycled concept, Sonoma has struck the right note for Hill staffers and local residents. Reservations have been a must since it opened its doors earlier this summer, with walk-in tables nearly impossible to come by even on a recent Monday night in the dog days of August.

Filled with so many voices, the long, narrow space would be lively in any case, but throw in the exposed brick walls and touches of stainless steel and it becomes loud, loud, LOUD, with patrons often needing to shout across the table at one another to be heard over the din.

But few seem to mind. And who can blame them? This is a casual, fun way to dine.

The menu is divided up into five sections: cheese, charcuterie, pizza, firsts and seconds. On each of my visits, people at my table selected one or two from each category to share, ordering three or four times throughout.

This is, after all, a wine bar as well, and the well-selected wine list only makes things more palatable. Some 35 wines — Californian and Italian only — are available by the bottle, glass or half-glass “taste.”

The result is dinner as a slow-paced, two- to three-hour event that would make an Italian proud but could pose problems for a lawmaker or staffer needing to make an appearance at a fundraiser or two the same evening. The service is appropriately relaxed, collegial and friendly, the staff quick with recommendations.

You might start off asking about the dozen cheeses on the menu, divided into cow, goat, sheep and bleu. Among the best: the Vermont clothbound cheddar, a California Humboldt fog goat and a two-year-old pecorino romano.

Whatever you pick, it’ll be accompanied by crostini and a house-made spread, such as the tangy red-wine jelly on my last visit.

The charcuterie board includes a tasty array of speck, salami, coppa, Amish chicken p�t�, prosciutto di Parma and bresola, many of which arrive sliced thin and piled high, the generous portions ensure your intake of protein (and sodium) for the day.

The brick-oven-style pizzas are small, the crust thin and tender. Diners have a choice of tomato-oregano sauce, green basil pesto or white pizza, plus a panoply of toppings, from goat cheese to salami to spring onions.

The tomato pie was bland, owing to a lack of salt. A pesto-and-wild-boar-sausage pie was much better.

Minimal seasoning is apparent in several dishes. A green-bean-and-tomato salad is bright and fresh but lacked salt. And there are no salt and pepper shakers on the table.

In contrast, a wild-green scamorza ravioli in mushroom-shallot broth, was swimming in a highly seasoned broth.

Other first courses, mostly pastas and the like, include pulled Amish chicken with penne, dried tomatoes, basil and ricotta; potato gnocchi with local tomatoes, celery and bottarga; and black risotto, colored with squid ink and studded with seared calamari, speck and onions. None is more than $9.

Bargains continue with the second courses, which are modest in portion and never break the $17 barrier.

My favorite was a Sunnyside Farms flank steak, grilled and served with several cloves of poached garlic and roasted new potatoes. At $13, you could eat one every day.

Diver scallops were sweet and fresh, complemented by a sweet-pea coulis, although the chanterelle mushrooms struck me as an unnecessary afterthought.

A recent menu addition, seared rare tuna, was a delight — large chunks of high-grade fish, served with chickpea pur�e. Other fish dishes include a rockfish with corn and potato salad and prawn aioli, and snapper with lemon, oregano and olive oil. Nothing fancy here, just simple, direct Italian preparations.

A burger of Wagyu beef — the makings of kobe beef in Japan — is a great lunch choice, set off by tomatoes, grilled onions and your choice of cheeses, pancetta or roasted wild mushrooms.

Dessert is an up-or-down affair. The best of the bunch is the creamy vanilla panna cotta topped with blueberry compote. “Chocolate blackout cake” was rich and moist, but a bland bing cherry-red wine reduction added nothing.

For chocolate lovers, the dark-chocolate pudding, similar to a pot de cr�me, is the pick.

The owners of Sonoma are poised to open an upstairs lounge, with a full bar and limited menu, which should alleviate the crowding downstairs. It’s a gorgeous space, with hardwood floors, modern sofas, a fireplace and large picture windows looking out over Pennsylvania Avenue. Look for it to host many a fundraiser as we enter campaign season.

But already, Sonoma is a much-needed, must-visit restaurant on the Hill.