Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wine with the Ultimate View

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the new restaurant at the Santa Monica Place Sonoma Wine Garden. 

Wine with the Ultimate View

There are now almost ten new restaurants at the two month old Santa Monica Place 2.0, and of all them Sonoma Wine Garden has the best view, hands down.  From brunch overlooking sparkling ocean waves to drinks at sunset to dinner during the lighting of the iconic Santa Monica Pier, this is a restaurant that will always be busy based on the view alone.  (And since the market for ocean view restaurants isn’t that big in Santa Monica to begin with I can definitely see it giving The Lobster and Casa del Mar a run for their money on Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve).

Now, with a name like Sonoma Wine Garden you know that fermented grapes are definitely meant to be imbibed.  This is a wine garden (read casual yet sophisticated) (but definitely not as casual or sophisticated as a beer garden… at least according to most wine drinkers).  The list has a few California offerings but definitely sides on that of a global passport with choices from Italy, France, New Zealand, and Austria (Executive Chef Roman Petry’s homeland).  And also, with the one of the best sunset ocean views in Santa Monica you know you’ll be paying top dollar for those fermented grapes.  On the wine by the glass list there is nary a glass under ten dollars with some of them going as high as $19 (although, I have heard that the bottle list was a little bit more reasonable). I started out with Assyritiko Sigalas Santorini Greece, which was congenial, but would have be positively delightful if it had been ten degrees warmer (it was during our super chilly summer, before we got into this heat wave of an autumn).  Luckily there was a fire pit right behind me so this lack of warmth was not a truly pressing issue.  My dining companion went for the Malbec Navarro Correars Alegoria Mendoza Argentina, an earthy cherry and plum flavored wine that was definitely more deliciously weather appropriate.
Now, all you have to do is look at Petry’s resume to understand why the wine list reads like United Nations roll call.   Roman Petry, executive chef of both Sonoma Wine Garden and Ozumo Santa Monica (another one of the restaurant choices on the third floor of Santa Monica Place), was born in Erding, Germany.  His culinary career started in his native Germany as student at the Bavaria Hotel Management School in Altoetting, which led him to a training position at the established Alois Dallmayr in Munich.  From there Roman went on to work at some of the top restaurants in Europe such as the Two Michelin Star rated Obauer in Werfen, Austria and Tristan in Mallorca, Spain.  During that time he acquired the skills and experience needed to form his own creative style so at the young age of 20 he became the Executive Chef of the One Michelin Star rated Christian`s Restaurant in Kirchdorf, Germany. During his tenure there he was awarded 2nd place in a national competition as Best Young Pastry Chef in Germany.
Driven by his passion for Japanese food and culture he joined the renowned Zuma Restaurant at London`s Knightsbridge in 2005. In 2007, Zuma selected him as Sous Chef of the opening team for the company’s first opening outside of London at Zuma Hong Kong. Within its opening year Zuma Hong Kong was voted to 99th place on the list of the Top 100 Best Restaurants Worldwide.  In 2008 Roman joined Roka Akor as Executive Sous Chef to establish the first American counterpart of London’s award-winning Roka in Scottsdale, Arizona.  During Roman’s time as Executive Chef at Roka Akor, the restaurant was voted as one of the Top Ten Spots for Sushi in the United States by Bon Appétit magazine.   Petry then joined one of the Bay Area’s foremost contemporary Japanese Restaurants: Ozumo.  So when Ozumo decided to open another location at our fair two-month-old mall, Petry jumped on board and decided to create Sonoma Wine Garden to boot!
Petry’s culinary philosophy is using only the best products and letting the flavors speak for themselves (but really what chef would argue for the opposing viewpoint of this?) and it is prominent for on the menu.  He enjoys restaurants which are relaxed and serve as informal gathering points (and I can happily note that Sonoma Wine Garden is both of these, which definitely not always the case when you’re working with a view).   With that in mind, naturally Sonoma Wine Garden has an extensive (but not overwhelming) choice of Cheese, Charcuterie, and Oyster for their wine (read smaller) plates.

We decided to start out with a couple of oyster tastings. The Fanny Bays, hailing from British Columbia, were meaty and smooth with is supposedly a cucumber finish (my oyster palette just isn’t that refined yet…).  By contrast the Lunas from Carlsbad were delicate and sweet, more of a dessert oyster, which paired great with the temperature thrown aside Assyrtiko.   Our oyster choices came with cocktail, horseradish, and grilled lemon but not Mignonette sauce (sigh, my favorite).  Another choice foray into the seafood small plates was the Chilled Wild Prawns from Baja California served with a selection of Champagne Vinaigrette, Sonoma Cocktail Sauce, or Mustard Grain Aioli.  The prawns were ginormous and cooked and chilled to perfection, for there is nothing worse than a totally overcooked shrimp (other than an overcooked scallop…)


As I said before Roman Petry hails from Austria and its apparent in details of a good amount of dishes on the menu.   Some details are big, one such example is the Liptauer, a petite jar of Austrian cheese spread made of soft cheese, paprika, and caraway seeds served with artesian bread.  According to our server, this dish is quite popular both in Austria and at Sonoma Wine Garden.  So maybe I’m in the wrong but for myself, and my dining companion, the taste came off as strange, almost hodgepodge like.  Other details are smaller, such as the meat friendly Nectarine and Burrata Salad with Brentwood Farms Corn was served with Prosciutto (but really where is Prosciutto not on the menu these days when wine is featured).  But my personal favorite is of the five cheeses offered at Sonoma Wine Garden one of them (the cow based Oma) is made by the von Trapp Family in Vermont (yes it’s totally the same singing and dancing Austrian von Trapp family you’re thinking of).
There’s something about the energy of a new restaurant.   Sure everything isn’t perfect, but that’s okay because everyone is so excited and their enthusiasm makes up for their foibles. The night we were there we met both the GM and Wine Director of Sonoma Wine Garden both were nothing but effervescent.  Our server Ryan when talking about the purveyor of carnivore options for the restaurant, with the complete earnestness a modern day Jimmy Olsen, blurted out “our Butcher is totally Rad!” (Yeah he really did use the word Rad, it was really cute). 
Our next round of wine, by this time now viewing the illuminated lights of the Santa Monica Pier’s roller coaster, included the Pinot Noir, Littorai, Sonoma Coast (ironically the only offering on the Wine by the Glass list actually from Sonoma).  This wine was super super smoky, but paired great with our two dinner entrées: a Prime Rib Eye Steak, crusted with garden herbs, Russian River sauce, and parsley potatoes and the Maccheroni with braised rabbit and asparagus. The latter was the standout dish of the meal (I absolutely adore rabbit).  It had perfectly round flavoring and was hearty without being heavy.  I also absolutely adored the side dish of Truffle Fries.  Yes, I know they are now offered on many many (many) menus these days, but I still ate every topped with Parmesan Cheese and garden Parsley one of them.
Sonoma Wine Garden sophisticated, casual, lovely.  Cause really there’s no worry that a glass of wine, an amazing view, and the use of late 1990s catchphrases couldn’t replace with a smile. 
Kat Thomas is a writer who eats food and cooks food.  You can check out her out more at her blog, the

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