Like my Examiner bio states, I seek food made with passion. You never know where it may lurk. I was hoping to find it last night at Sonoma in Salem, MA. Alas, there was none to be found.
It’s a quaint and small spot in a not-so-good location near Pickering Wharf. It’s cozy and unpretentious inside with warm wood accents and a pressed tin ceiling. It bills itself as a ‘gastropub,’ which according to their website “is a British term for a Public House that specializes in high quality food, a step above the more basic ‘Pub Grub.’” They certainly have a menu that meets this standard but their execution needs honing.
Be forewarned that the menu on their website is not what was presented in the restaurant. This set up an early and oft repeated feeling – disappointment. The online menu promised tapas such as Marinated Olives, Beef Tartare Crostinis, Salmon Croquettes, Torta Espanola, and four others. What we were offered were olives, chorizo, and shrimp scampi. That’s it, only three tapas, none of which required much culinary skill. We ordered all of them.
I was pleasantly surprised by the olives though. They were a simple mixed set of unpitted green, oil cured olives seasoned with oregano. The surprise was they were served very warm. The heat really woke up the flavors. The chorizo and shrimp did little to surprise.
Sonoma did do one small thing that really got my attention. Of all things, it was their nachos. Far too many establishments define ‘nacho’ the same way – mountain of chips (tri-colored, yeah!) and an assortment of toppings that rest on said mount like snow. Once you’ve cleared the surface you’re left with a pile of plain chips. Here they actually prepare a platter of individual chips, each receiving its own layer of refried beans, cheese and chunk of steak. Not a culinary feat mind you but the kind of attention to detail that was lacking in the rest of my experience here.
Service was something short of attentive. Perhaps it is because the bartender was also the only waitperson. Once the place filled up (about 30 people) she was spread too thin to deliver the service one expects from a gastropub. Oh wait, I’ve never been to one before, maybe this is part of the charm. Nah, being left waiting is not all that charming.
A third disappointment was unwelcomingly found behind the bar, or should I say not found. I spotted a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and ordered a martini. The waitress/bartender/busboy prepared the glass in a bath of ice and grabbed the bottle. It was almost empty and contained too little to make a proper serving. What, no back up bottle? Nope.
I sigh and opt for Tanqueray and am met with the same fate again. Too little - no backup. I settle for Beefeater (gulp) and wonder how many other top-shelf containers are just for show.
My dinner party settled on four pizzas to round out our evening. Sonoma describes them as “traditional 12 inch California Style oval Flatbreads with a thin, crisp crust that is made fresh daily.” Thin and crisp here means cracker-like. What little moisture was in this dough was baked out in the small brick pizza oven between the bar and the kitchen. The toppings were neither original nor inspired.
There are other items on the menu worth exploring but the overall experience of this evening leads me to wonder why I should give it a second chance.
For more information:
75 Congress Street
Salem, MA 01970
Reservations (978) 607-0140