A few doors west of Sonoma’s quaint central plaza, Sonoma-Meritâge is a short walk from the hub of activity in this quintessential wine country town. The martini bar is a popular social hub for locals returning from their commutes, as well as winery workers unwinding from the hospitality scene (there's a saying that it takes a lot of liquor to make a little wine…). The restaurant feeds the hungry masses finishing a day of wine tasting or shopping and picnicking on the Plaza.
There is plenty of free off-street parking, and after 6:00 p.m., parking on the plaza is unrestricted.
What you notice first when entering the dining room, which presents itself through large expanses of glass fronting on Napa Street, is that the restaurant is bright, colorful, and lively. There are wonderful hand-blown glass fixtures suspended from the ceiling -- made locally by Bacchus Glass Lights -- fashioned into whimsical sea creature-like shapes. The walls of the bar and dining room are decorated with brightly colored paintings by local artists. Outdoor dining on the back patio is enhanced by a babbling fountain under the cover of a large, protective tent. Tables are covered in classic, simple white linen with fresh flowers and a flickering votive. The dining room is vibrant yet relaxed. If you visit after dark, the Bacchus light fixtures add to the soft, glowing ambiance.
The executive chef and proprietor, Carlos Cavallo makes the rounds to chat with patrons and to confirm that everyone’s food is perfectly prepared. The friendly, efficient waitstaff bustle about unobtrusively. Fresh, savory bread is promptly served along with an olive tapenade that is as delicious as it is healthy.
Carlos’ cooking style is recognizable for its simplicity: fresh seafood is the highlight, a fact made obvious by the live lobster and crab tanks adjacent to the martini bar. There are risotto, chicken, and beef dishes, plus the requisite fresh pasta entrees on the menu. Vegetarians will find many selections to choose from, and fresh, locally grown vegetables and herbs are abundant. Classic salads, such as a traditional Caesar, as well as more contemporary ensembles, are delicious and inspired, and the housemade soups are superb.
On this visit, for an appetizer, I tried the Littleneck Clams Casino: a half dozen tender clams on the half shell, baked with breadcrumbs, crisp bacon bits, and Parmesan cheese. I could have easily gobbled up a dozen, but I’m glad I saved room for the course to come: a half rack of slow-roasted wild boar baby back ribs served over wilted spinach with a balsamic reduction sauce. The ribs were succulent and meaty, and the reduction sauce was subtle enough to allow the flavors of the wild boar to prevail without being the least bit gamey. The portion was plentiful, and although I thought the wilted spinach was a bit too tart to counterbalance the semi-sweet reduction, the dish was satisfying and savory. My guest ordered a warm wilted spinach salad tossed with fresh tomatoes, a substantial chunk of rich Cambazola cheese, caramelized red onions, walnuts, and a pancetta-shiitake mushroom dressing. The proportions of the ingredients were perfectly balanced and delicious. This amazingly fresh concoction was followed by a simple, yet memorable dish of fresh Gemelli pasta cooked al dente, tossed with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, and shaved Parmesan cheese…classic Italian pasta made perfect through its simplicity and elegance. We shared a bottle of Deerfield Pinot Noir that was reasonably priced and held up to the rich wild boar, yet added some pizzazz to the simple pasta dish. For desert we shared a scoop of vanilla bean gelato dunked into a warm cup of espresso… rich, decadent, yet refreshingly uncomplicated… a perfect finish. There are several other flavors of homemade gelato and sorbet available too.
Dinner for two including wine and a tip came to a little over a hundred dollars, and the wine was about $40. You should expect three courses for under $40 a person without beverage or tip, unless you immerse yourself in fresh seafood. Compared to other Sonoma restaurants of this caliber, the prices are reasonable.
Chef Cavallo’s menu includes two versions of chef tasting menus or prefix dinners of four dishes each plus dessert, one menu comprised of vegetarian dishes (also prepared in a vegan version if you prefer), the other inspired by seafood. There is a dinner special every night of the week except Tuesday when the restaurant is closed. Thursday night, for instance, is lobster night, and an entire fresh, steamed lobster with drawn butter, side dishes, and dessert is just $24. Friday is prime rib night, Saturday is Osso Buco, Sunday is leg of lamb, and so forth. Locals return weekly on their favorite night for the consistently delicious specials, charming atmosphere, and special prices. Seafood platters are a house specialty every night, and include seasonal selections of wonderful, fresh oysters, clams, lobster, crab, and perfectly prepared fish.
The wine list is, of course, highlighted by several choices of Meritage style, or Bordeaux blend wines, and the focus is on Sonoma County estates, as well as selections from Italy and France. There are plenty of intriguing varietals and hard to find small-lot selections to please even the most sophisticated oenophile; many available by the glass. The waitstaff is fairly well versed in the wine list and can help make recommendations to pair with your food.
On a Friday or Saturday night after 7:00, service can be a bit slow, due to the number of devoted locals and delighted visitors, and reservations are always recommended, but in such comfortable colorful surroundings, the time between courses tends to pass quickly. If you like fresh, simple flavors, culled from spectacular local produce and pasta, artisan cheeses and bread, and sublime seafood, Sonoma-Meritâge is certain to please. With an excellent glass of wine or an imaginative martini from the bar, this is a wonderful place to unwind and sample the bounty of the wine country and the northern California coast. Meritâge is truly a restaurant with something to satisfy every palate.
Occupation: Multimedia Designer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Cajun Pacific Restaurant & Catering
Reviewed Sonoma-Meritâge Oyster Bar & Grill: Saturday, September 9, 2006
I was excited for the chance to venture out of town to Sonoma. I haven’t been there in a while and it was a great opportunity for me to swing by some of my favorite wineries. We did a little wine tasting before heading over to Sonoma-Meritâge for an early dinner.
Conveniently located right off the square, we arrived just about the time the restaurant was opening. The staff was very friendly and attentive. We opted to sit in the outdoor dining area since it was sunny and warm. I scanned the decor in the main dining room before heading out. Local art adorned the walls (priced for purchase), along with some interesting hand-blown glass fixtures. The decor of the outdoor seating area was puzzling to me. It consisted of a giant framed tent wrapped in hundreds of yards of tulle-like fabric, which had become slightly dusty from the Sonoma climate. We felt a little like we were attending someone’s abandoned wedding reception.
After a day of wine, we opted to try some of Sonoma-Meritâge’s unique cocktails. We settled on a mojito and a bellini, the latter being a sparkling wine with fresh peach puree. The mojito was average but the bellini had a nice crispness -- not too sweet and very refreshing.
None of the main entrees seemed very exciting. This was a little surprising to me since we were in the heart of wine country. There seemed to be some typical pasta dishes and fresh fish preparations. After much thought we decided to go with the fresh seafood and prepared oysters. This appeared to be a Meritâge specialty and what most other patrons were ordering.
We first tried the Oysters Casino, which were baked oysters topped with Parmesean cheese and prosciutto. These were intensely flavorful and very salty. I am not shy when it comes to salt, but this was a bit much even for me. It they were less salty they would have been outstanding.
Next we ordered a seafood platter, which was a cornucopia of fresh oysters, clams, mussels, cracked crab, shrimp, and ceviche, served on a giant tray of crushed ice. I was impressed by the variety and the platter’s generous size was perfect to share. Mostly the seafood tasted very fresh and was served at the perfect temperature. The sauces accompanying the platter were also flavorful. The downside was the ceviche was tough, bitter, and dry. We tasted it a few times but couldn’t eat it. Considering this was the only really prepared item on the platter, I was disappointed.
For dessert we opted to sample the famous housemade gelato and sorbet assortment: a large plate atop crisped, crêpe-like cookies. Nice presentation and the frozen specialties were tasty overall. The only disappointing part was it seemed the gelato and sorbet were all scooped and plated with the same spoon, and many flavors were tainted with the remains of what was scooped before it. Lemon sorbet does not taste so good with an extra coating of coffee flavored gelato.
My overall evaluation is: good service, fair food, and the outdoor seating could benefit from some new thought to the décor.
Location: Foster City
Favorite Restaurant: House of Prime Rib
Reviewed Sonoma-Meritâge Oyster Bar & Grill: Monday, September 18, 2006