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Restaurants & Bars 27

SONA -- Long Review

jcwla | May 16, 2003 11:58 AM

I made reservations about ten days ago and a friend and I arrived at Sona for dinner at 7:30 last night.
It's at 401 La Cienega, the little white stucco-y building at the Northwest corner of Westmount, with just the name in black letters to identify it. Its previous incarnation was as Europe, and before that a Greek restaurant, and before that, as the lady maitre d' told us (as Betty White asked, "Does that make her a mattress d'?"), "about ten other things," none of which I had made it to.

We were seated at a table for two at the far end of a series of tables against the southern wall of the main room, so my friend had a view of the entire room and I (chivalrous guy that I am) had a view of her. (Whoever figures out a way to improve this fact of restaurant life will laugh all the way to the bank.)

To my surprise, the room was fairly empty -- maybe half a dozen other parties in attendance -- at that point. Was everybody watching the Lakers? As Billy Crystal told Jack Nicholson while hosting the Oscars, "I'm a Clipper fan. We don't get to the same games."

The decor itself is, as has been said, minimalist. But when this look does not come off as stark -- and it doesn't here -- it's sleek, modern, clean and relaxing all at once. The eggshell white of the walls plays off the various darker solid colors worn by the staff.

And about the staff: there appeared to be hundreds of them. You can't throw a cat in the joint without hitting one. They also appeared to have multiplied over the course of our dinner. Either that or they hired on. But better too many than too few, and all were pleasant and eager to assist.

At the table upon arrival is a dinner plate -- gleaming white, of course -- and a long, thin, white side plate to its left that was shaped more like something an order of sushi or sashimi would be served on at a Japanese restaurant than any bread or butter dish I had ever seen.

My friend didn't want wine, and when we asked for water our waitress did ask, "Flat or sparkling?", but the "California" (i.e., ice) water we requested was poured without a hint of condescension. I also had a glass of iced tea, and the presentation was something to see. Three separate little petri dish-sized tins were placed in front of me, one with four lemon slices, another with Equal and Sweet 'n Low (there appeared to be the same number of packets of each), and the last with cubes of white and brown sugar. The only thing missing was honey. And the iced tea itself -- pure, not fruity or tarted up in any way -- is some of the most delicious this side of the Ivy. A wise choice for the non-drinker, as my glass was kept topped off throughout the evening.

Bread consisted of a little beignet-sized dinner roll and a cube of olive bread. The butter was topped with what looked like plain salt and pepper but could not possibly have been, and a bite of the roll with the butter was transcendent -- the best bread and butter I'd tasted since Grace. They came around to restock this dish too, but we quickly put the kibosh on that. We were here to eat like proper foodies.

Having read "Snotty Irene's" review, we had settled on the idea of the six-course, $69-per-person tasting menus, and our lovely waitress thoughtfully asked us whether we had any food allergies, dislikes or specifications. My friend didn't want any raw seafood or shellfish, or any chocolate or (of all things) rhubarb. We settled back into an easy conversation and enjoyed the rare anticipation of not knowing what one will be served. (Even Masa at Ginza Sushi-Ko had a limited bag of tricks; you knew you'd be having the toro tartare with caviar, the blowfish salad and fried fugu, the foie gras fondue, the grapefruit granita, etc.)

Out first came a little amuse-bouche of a burrata-soft cheese (it wasn't burrata), with one or two little bites of fava bean, a dab of cauliflower essence, and a tiny little pink-purple edible flower. Delicious! The juxtaposition of that soft cheese against the mild crunch of fava bean and the delicate flower told us we were in for a special evening, and we were.

I then went to use the men's room. Our waitress told me she would direct me but quickly realized she had -- force of habit -- guided me to the ladies' room. I asked her who had told her about me, and we shared a hearty laugh about it. She apologized earnestly and handed me off to a waiter who took me the rest of the way. I've always believed you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the restrooms, and the men's room at Sona is the cleanest, best-smelling and most thoughtfully appointed in memory. My friend told me the ladies' room was clean and lovely as well -- I never actually made it in myself.

When I returned to the table, I noticed the first sign of a trend. There had been four pieces of silverware in front of each of us: a fork, knife, large spoon and butter knife. We had by then used our butter knives and, on the amuse, our forks. All four were replaced between courses, and would continue to be replaced after every course. We asked our waitress about it -- some of this stuff did seem, as S. Irene wrote, "a little precious" -- and she admitted that the staff is there long into the night polishing the silverware. I don't know how long they will continue with this little bit of luxury -- it felt unnecessary and even decadent. Even Bastide doesn't take things to this level.

The courses were paced deliberately, and I enjoyed that. This is the kind of place you spend the evening, not grab a quick bite, and by the time we had left it was after ten. But back to the food. The first course consisted of poached salmon with a green herb emulsion, a little "cucumber salad" of three or four pieces of cucumber, and some radish. The salmon -- about half a dozen small bites' worth -- was cooked through but cooler than it was warm. Nothing wrong with that, actually; it gave the first course the light, refreshing taste of springtime.

The second course was even better: artichoke soup, a deep olive green, just enough to cover the bottom of the almost sillily deep bowl -- white, like all else -- it was served in, yet like the first course it ended up being more food than it looked like. The flavor of the artichoke is intense and delicious in this soup -- I used my last piece of bread to scoop up the last of it. There aren't a lot of great artichoke dishes in town: I'm over the artichoke salad at Il Moro (as my friend said, "I'm over Il Moro altogether"), though I'll still happily dip the plain cold artichoke appetizer at Matteo's Hoboken in its Italianate dressing anytime. This artichoke soup is a welcome addition. It's wonderful.

At this point we got up from the table, assured them we'd be right back -- my friend jokingly offered to leave her purse as collateral -- and went outside to view the eclipse. We finally found it in the east-southeast, quite faint but something to see nonetheless. The kitchen staff and several waiters had joined us out on Westmount, and we all traipsed happily back in through the kitchen. There's an easy, friendly warmth to the place, which you might not expect in a serious restaurant.

Out next came codfish -- a flavorful, substantial fish that doesn't get served often enough, though I'd happily take it over halibut or several trendier others any day. Theirs was grilled with the skin on -- I removed it, Philistine that I am -- and served with tiny fingerling potatoes the size of fingertips and some little carrots and spinach. Delicious, and easily kept away from the sauce, two squirts of pretty rust-red that stung of way too much tomato.

Next, beef tenderloin served au jus with sweetbreads and a little bit of potato mash. Our beef came blood-red and we asked them to cook it through which, like every other request, was immediately and graciously accommodated. Once cooked to our liking, it was wonderful -- some of the best meat in memory. The sweetbreads and mashed potatoes were also just dandy.

Before dessert came out, my friend became concerned that they wouldn't give me anything chocolate just because she didn't want chocolate. Our waitress assured us that we would receive two different things. Boy, did we misunderstand her -- she meant that we each got two desserts!, and when was the last time you had that?

Out first came a delicious wildberry compote with just enough of a crust to complement the gobs of tiny, delicious little wildberries. Accompanying the compote was a little bit of Meyer lemon sorbet -- half a dozen small bites' worth -- wow. Talk about intensity of flavor. They played off each other symphonically. The sorbet was covered with just -- not even a spring of mint, call it a shaving of a spring of mint. A beautiful presentation but always at the service of the food and its flavors.

Next, in case we had any dignity left, the banana bread pudding with raspberry sauce, one little raspberry and -- for my friend, vanilla bean ice cream; for me, chocolate hazelnut ice cream and chocolate sauce. I must admit: I'm a sucker for banana desserts. (Puck made a banana souffle with chocolate chips and some kind of green sauce for a St. Patrick's Day party I attended at Spago in '98 or '99 that remains my all-time favorite to this day.) But this one is special, and again the accompaniments are just perfectly chosen. The clarity of vision of both chefs is wondrous.

By this time, the main room of the restaurant was 90% full -- there were still some tables along our wall --the second room was in use, and they had opened the private room for a party of three. (My friend and I agreed that we could certainly see having a private party here.) Our waitress didn't rush the check to us the second we finished dessert; my friend and I continued our conversation and shortly after ten I requested the check, which came to just over $152, plus a $25 tip.

Our waitress then asked us how we had enjoyed everything and we told her it was just wonderful. My friend suggested that when we returned, we would want to try six new things, and perhaps they could keep a file of each diner's specifications and the dishes they had tried. She mentioned that the chefs would be changing the menu again in ten days and that they do so seasonally to use the freshest ingredients.

As we made our way outside and I handed our parking ticket to the valet, my friend saw one of the hosts crossing La Cienega back to the restaurant with a bottle of wine and told him her only suggestion would be to have the serving staff, when they present the bill, take your parking ticket so your car will be ready. This might not be the best idea elsewhere on La Cienega but would work here because, even if the party took a long time to exit the restaurant, Westmount is not a through street to the west and the car could easily be left there for a few moments. The host told us that, in fact, they do that as a matter of course and that, since they hadn't in our case, the $3.50 valet parking charge was on them. A final grace note in a delicious, deeply satisfying evening that left both of us -- and my friend is tougher than I am -- eager to return.

Sona is one of the best additions to the Los Angeles dining scene in recent years.

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