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Restaurants & Bars 1

Sona Last Saturday

margaret pope | Jan 1, 200405:06 AM

My husband and I went to Sona for my birthday this past Saturday, and I was excited to have a wonderful gustatory experience, but it was not to be for me, I'm afraid. I realize, too, that I am in the minority in feeling significantly underwhelmed by Sona, but I do, on all 3 counts: food, service, and decor.

I had heard nothing but extravagantly good things about Sona, so I will always wonder how I would've interpreted the restaurant had I known little about it. But I tend to think I would have felt the same. I probably just wouldn't have been as disappointed.

You might bear in mind as well, if you're tempted to give me a virtual lashing of disagreement after you read this, that I also place quite a few more expectations on a restaurant as costly as Sona is. (And I have had more enjoyable evenings and better food at less expensive places). Going to a restaurant like this--for dinner at a normal evening hour--is precisely the thing we do only on special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries or some other special celebration--or when my parents or his father visits from the East Coast. It's when you really want to pretend money is "just money" and indulge. And so every small thing is significant and probably amplified.

Thus: Though we had made reservations and arrived on time, our table was not ready. Not such an extraordinary thing, but... I also was a bit surprised at how distracted the hostess seemed, something I've seen many times in many restaurants, but never at one with a reputation as good as this. My old "this is L.A." rationalizing kicked in, however, and I just blamed myself for not being more understanding of her personal life. Besides, it was Saturday, I suppose.

She asked if we'd like to sit at the bar. We said sure, of course. And as we sat there I realized I was starting to squint because everything around me was such a similar color of "neutral." The wall behind us, as we sat at the bar, was covered almost entirely with a sort of built-in cement installation. I kept squinting harder to see if there was an abstract design etched in it or if it was just my imagination. A similar type of wall was behind us as we ate. Of course, what can you say if someone doesn't like the decor? But I didn't. I felt like I was being suffocated by beige.

Then I asked if they made mint juleps. With the great exception of my main course, the bartender was probably the best thing about the whole evening and was friendly, knowledgeable, and upbeat--but he could not make me a mint julep. Which was no surprise, but I always ask if I want one, just in case. (They do make a very nice one at Jar, by the way, and they serve it in a nice, chilled silver-plated mug.) My husband asked about mojitos, but he couldn't make anyone mojitos because there was no mint, or at least not at the bar. He then seemed to start to explain something about conserving the mint because the restaurant...but then he stopped and suggested something else. At the time I wasn't particularly bothered by any of this, but in retrospect I am a little. I understand that a good restaurant doesn't want to just keep tons of perishable supplies around, but, then again, no mint to spare for the bar? But the drinks he did make us were fine.

At any rate, eventually (15 minutes?) the hostess came to take us to our table. She didn't say, "When you're ready," she didn't address the drink issue, she just started to walk. The bartender quickly said, very graciously, that he would have someone bring the drinks to our table. My husband had to hastily get out a five for a tip, and hence we lost him for a few minutes. But that was just as well, because our table was...not ready! There was a disheveled tablecloth on top of it and no silverware and the napkins were a bit helter skelter. Sigh.

It took a teeny bit long for our drinks to arrive, I thought. Long enough for me to notice.

No water. No waiter.

But as someone pointed out in an earlier review, there were many, many service staff walking around. In fact, when our drinks did come, they had allotted 3 people for the job: one man for each drink and the hostess to get them halfway there. But it didn't strike me as good service so much as it just seemed inefficient.

A few minutes went by and finally someone noticed us and decided to give us menus. Sigh. Though I never had an unpleasant time, at that moment I was beginning to wonder if maybe we just weren't cool-looking enough or financially fit-looking enough... These things go through my mind sometimes in L.A. It sort of felt like we were crashing a party.

Finally, a man came over to ask us about water--sparkling, bottled, or filtered, I think, were the choices. I noted sadly that out of all the staff about, we got a server who seemed very tense and maybe a little haughty. He only smiled once, very briefly, towards the very end of the meal.

Neither he nor anyone else asked us if we'd like to see a wine list. That did not happen until after the ceremonial bread cubes, the water, the amuse bouche, and then finally the appetizers arrived. It happened just as the appetizers arrived, as a matter of fact. Bad timing. As it was, the presentation of my soup was akin to the delivery of the drinks in that it took more than one person to do. One man to lay the soup bowl with its small bed of chestnut-filled angioletti in front of me, another man who swooped in from the side to pour the soup over them from a carafe. I found myself wondering if all that wouldn't just make it cold faster. But I never found out because, as I said, someone asked about the wine list and brought it more promptly than anything else that night. I should've laid it down and eaten the soup, but by then I was more curious about the wine list than I was my appetizer. That presentation didn't do much for the soup's texture (it was a squash soup). The pasta was cooked nicely, but it was difficult to taste the chestnut through the strong squash flavor and the citrus.

The wine list has many wines by the glass, in two sizes: 3 oz and 6 oz. I ordered a 6-oz glass of white to go with my duck; my husband ordered a 3-oz glass of red to go with his cod. Our server poured us both 6-oz glasses. Neither of us said anything. My husband was free to drink as much as he wanted, and the cost difference wasn't that much. It was more, What's the point of having the choice on the menu--a nice touch--if it's not paid attention to? I don't think our server didn't hear that my husband wanted a 3-oz glass. I think he just forgot.

The wait was far too long between our appetizers and main courses, and about 5 or more minutes before they arrived, I noticed our server look over at our table as he surveyed the dining room. His eyes widened and he turned on his heel back towards the kitchen. The fact that I even noticed this is, to me, definitely the mark of average-to-good service, not excellent service.

I should add that our server was not forthcoming about the menu. He only answered what he was asked and that very succinctly. He seemed to just want to get on with it. Then my husband (who, for reasons too complicated to explain here, only started eating sushi about a year ago) asked what hamachi was. There was a pause, and, if you ask me, there just shouldn't have been a pause, because that pause meant, "You don't know what hamachi is?" And when he said "yellowtail," there was a definite trace of the "duh!" quality about it. (That was probably my least favorite moment of the evening.)

My husband ordered the cod, and he didn't like it too much because he thought it was bland. I think, and you're certainly free to disagree, that the server should've given my husband more guidance. My husband asked about all the fish and seafood on the menu. He wanted to know what Arctic char tasted like and he wanted to know if the trout came from a farm. He didn't know what hamachi was. He seemed the perfect candidate for guidance. And sometimes, when you're at a good restaurant, it's a pleasure to hear about the menu from your server. Sometimes they make you change your mind, sometimes they reassure you, sometimes they steer you away from something. If you're asking questions...

I knew I wanted the duck, though, and I was right. It was by far the best-prepared duck I have ever had, mignonettes so rare and juicy and full-flavored, it at first seemed like an excellent steak--until a gamey, savory kick shows up at the last instant. The spiced sweet potatoes with it, which were pureed, matched it perfectly. They were not too sweet, not too overwhelmingly spiced. The apples, however, tasted like the bottom of a greasy pan that's been sautéing and browning things all night. They had an unpleasant, heavy texture, sort of soggy.

Everything else afterwards, service-wise, happened uneventfully, not notably good or bad.

Of course I was eagerly anticipating the desserts, and there were some difficult choices: chocolate brioche perdu and chocolate beignets, mainly. But I ordered the pear tart with winter berries and my husband ordered the profiterole with homemade coffee, pistachio, and vanilla ice creams.

The pears themselves were in the fine category with the duck--really sublime with a wonderful texture and perfectly spiced, like the apples in a tarte tatin if they were pears and had triple the flavor and juiciness (and again, no sweeter than necessary)--and the berries were plump and warm and partially formed a tangy sauce. A plate solely of those two fruits would have been enough. I nearly forgot it was supposed to be a tart. However, a mound of something eventually emerged. It did not taste like a butter pastry, though. It was soft and a bit lumpy, more like vegan items I had at health food stores 10 years ago. The clove flavors were much stronger than I myself like. But my husband's ice cream, the vanilla in particular, was wonderfully fresh and light.

Again, I was disappointed with the presentation here. Square black plates and drizzles of chocolate sauce zigzagging all over seem very dull to me now.

The amuse bouche before the meal and the long narrow tray of tiny dessert-ettes--little cubes of macaroon, brownie, and so forth--we were given after the meal...neither were memorable. The macaroon had a wonderful coconut flavor, but everything else just tasted sweet. The dessert tray felt a bit unwelcome, actually, after everything else. We were quite full. But it did look pretty, like something out of a West Elm catalogue.

And David Meyers certainly did come out and shake each of our hands sincerely and ask us how we enjoyed our dinners, and I told him the duck was just divine. And he said, not snootily but sort of exuberantly, "well, it comes from X Place, so of course it is!" He radiated a real pleasant, earnest friendliness, and it didn't feel like a false, showy sort of gesture, but very real. (He seemed so young!)

Our total bill was $158 (after tax)--including 2 cocktails, 2 appetizers, 2 glasses of wine, 2 main courses, 2 desserts, and one tea.

All in all, it wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't have too much interest in going again--except, will I ever be able to experience duck like that again?!--and I won't have the pleasure of telling people they should go because it is just too expensive to be that uneven of an experience. And, in my opinion, the decor doesn't warrant the prices, either. No actual flowers in the flower arrangement in the larger dining room? There is no color in the restaurant, no color at all. I'm just a color person, what can I say?

I should qualify--if the price wasn't such a big deal for me (and Lord knows, I hope it won't always be like this), I would want to give it another try. The pears and berries, the ice creams, the duck (!)--you don't get those things, cooked that way, just anywhere. But the service and the decor, well, that's another story. To feel thrilled by the whole experience, it would have to be far more balanced than it was. I just can't excuse those greasy, sodden apples; that soup; that tart--or my husband's cod. In many ways, I wish that I'd gulped and girded myself and decided we should go to Bastide.

Soon, soon. In March for my husband's b-day? (He'll want to go to Campanile, I think.)

Happy New Year and best wishes for good eating in the year to come--

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