Diner: Fast Friends

Sonoma offers service as delicious as the menu

A blustery February saunter down Greenup Street in Covington surprised us with the bevy of mid-week activity. The area has become quite a dining and culinary hub with the addition of Sonoma as the newest attraction.

After five months of extensive renovations, owner Ezra Castle opened Sonoma last May. With chef Stefan Marcus and Castle's "pride and joy," son, Nani Castle as sous chef, the tastefully renovated, handsome building has helped to spur sophisticated palates to seek out this corner just up from Riverside Drive. Inside, the warm ochre colors and simple, uncluttered window treatments cast an inviting glow from the street and from any table.

Castle warmly greeted and seated all patrons with a continental verve and flourish. He seemed to know many of the evening's guests and many of the rest of us felt we'd likely be back for that generous welcome.

On our way to a cozy front corner booth, we passed a small but bustling bar, punctuated by cobalt droplights. While the upstairs room was filling with staff from a new and growing Kentucky company, the young men at the table next to us were brewing a potential new business.

Our waiter explained the specials and brought a vast and interesting wine list, available by the bottle or by the glass. It's been refreshing over the last year to find more restaurants that go beyond the predictable California wines, particularly when staff are capable of suggesting lesser known selections.

He was instrumental in suggesting wines for my partner's meat dish as well as for my fish entrée. We were both well pleased with our choices.

The original and eclectic menu is defined as California-Mediterranean, which is a helpful distinction from the increasingly popular eclectic category. The Beginnings — or appetizers — offered an intriguing selection that could entertain a table for dinner. The Saganaki ($6.95), kesseri cheese, lightly breaded and presented with the snap of a lighter igniting brandy and doused with freshly squeezed lemon juice was a fun and tasty way to start the evening. The large, thin pie-shaped piece was gooey and flavorful when spread on the accompanying bread and topped by the terrific tangerine coulis with a garlic-citrus zip. As it cooled, I enjoyed the cheese and coulis better without the bread. I'll admit I'm a bit of a bruschetta aficionado, and would easily recommend the Sicilian Bruschetta ($7.95). A hearty portion, this dish includes a split rather than sliced mini-baguette, brushed with pesto and topped with herbed, roasted tomatoes, marinated portabella mushrooms, cheeses and garlic. The vibrant, peppery zing was complimented by the sweet and tart balsamic reduction that decorated the plate.

We chose to share a House Salad ($4.95) and were a bit disappointed, particularly after the stunning appetizers. The crisp field greens were accompanied with red cabbage, slivered beets and carrots, along with cucumbers, tomatoes and Gorgonzola crumbles. Although I had anticipated the beets, I found them to be bland, and the vinaigrette failed to add some needed zest.

The Sesame Seared Tuna ($19.95) was perfectly done (at medium rare) and fork-tender. Served with marinated ginger and wasabi, the white sauce would have been better with a sharper citrus edge. The garlic-mashed potatoes were plentiful and tasty, but tepid. Our waiter had told us that the lamb chops are "tender as a mother's love." We laughed and ordered them ($24.95). Served over orzo couscous, the chops were thinner and less tender than expected. The plum coulis was fruity and tangy, complimented by the balsamic reduction looping the plate and a great flavor partner.

We were impressed by the fastidious attention Castle paid to preparing a table. While we had noted our waiter's attentive, friendly service, we were surprised to find he was also covering the entire room quickly and efficiently. In fact, it seemed there was more joy and enthusiasm displayed by those two men than I had seen anywhere all week.

Several dessert options were presented, but the Tiramisu ($5.95) is the only regularly offered item. With rich marscapone cheese and expresso-dipped lady fingers, the texture and flavor was exceptional, leaving me wanting just a little more, although the portion size is suitable for sharing.

I can think of only a few restaurants that I enjoy going to for both the food and the owners and staff. Unlike Cheers, no one knew my name, but at Sonoma, they treated me as if we were already fast friends. ©

Sonoma

Go: 313 Greenup St., Covington

Call: 261-7626

Hours: Monday: 5—9 pm; Tuesday- Thursday: 5—10 pm Friday- Saturday: 5—11 pm. Bar open until midnight weeknights, until 1 a.m. on weekends.

Prices: Moderate-expensive

Payment: Major credit cards, cash

Vegetarian Friendliness: Nice options throughout menu

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