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Cox: Steeped in history, but cutting edge

  • The Spice-Rubbed Baby Back ribs at Burgers & Vine on the square in Sonoma.

Talk about history so thick you can walk on it. Burgers & Vine, Carlo Cavallo's new and much anticipated bar, barbecue, and burger joint in Sonoma, is awash in history.

It's across Spain Street from the Mission San Francisco Solano, founded by Franciscans in 1823, and catty-cornered from the barracks where General Mariano Vallejo's soldiers were garrisoned when Sonoma County was still Mexico. It faces the town square where the Bear Flag Revolt severed California from Mexico in 1846, rendering California its own country, at least for a few weeks before the U.S. Army rode into town and declared the state for the federal government.

The building now housing Burgers & Vine was built in 1926 as the Sonoma Mission Creamery. It had been shuttered since 2006, needing a seismic retrofit, before chef Cavallo, who also owns Meritage Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Napa Street, struggled his way through the permitting process to reopen it. It's now an up-to-date watering hole and comfort food diner with many flat-screen TVs and a wall-sized projection TV, all tuned to sports.

How up-to-date? There's a digital music system flashing and glowing in multicolored splendor at the back of the room, but hearing the music will be hard because even when it's not full of patrons, the room is loud (with capital letters). Local bands are now being booked, which should further rattle eardrums. Sonoma's young adults seem to have taken to the scene already.

The wine list is small but nicely stocked with Sonoma Valley and Carneros wines — five whites and eight reds by the glass, including a spicy and delicious 2012 Plungerhead old-vine Zin for $7 a glass. A full bar mixes up the usual cocktails plus house specials with names like The Quiet Storm and Sicilian Kiss, the latter a mix of blood orange, vanilla ice cream, and vodka. All cocktails are $10. Nine draft beers will keep craft beer fans busy, and house-made beer is now available.

The Basic B&V Burger ($13, 2 stars) is a good, if ordinary, burger. It's a third of a pound of American Wagyu ground beef (the menu calls it Kobe beef, But I think not) on a brioche bun, cooked to your specification and side-dressed with lettuce, tomato, and sliced red onion. For cheese, choose from jack, cheddar, chipotle cheddar, or Pt. Reyes blue. Hand-Cut Fries ($3, 3 stars) were salty, crusty, and satisfying.

Or try a turkey, salmon, duck, or, as we did, an Asian Vegan Burger ($10, 2 stars), a squishy patty of edamame soybeans, spices dominated by cumin, shiitake mushrooms, cashews and chickpeas, all ground together, topped with sesame-ginger aioli, and served on a Dutch crunch bun.

There was a problem with the two appetizers we chose. Both the Fire Prawns ($10, 1 star), consisting of a half-pound of battered, deep-fried prawns, and Rings 'n Things ($10, 1 star), a plate of onion rings, mushrooms, and zucchini sticks coated with a batter made with Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs, were tasty and the deep frying oil was fresh. But the temperature of the oil was woefully inadequate. You could squeeze the fried batter and watch the oil literally run out and drip over your fingers. Figuring this was just a slip-up, I ordered the prawns on a second visit, with the same result. Oil that is hot enough instantly turns the liquid in the batter into steam, which prevents the oil from soaking into the crust. I'm sure the kitchen will get this straightened out, but hopefully sooner rather than later.

No problems with the Spice-Rubbed Baby Back Ribs ($18 half slab; $28 full slab, 3-1/2 stars), spicy as the devil, smoked for four hours over French oak wine barrel staves, then finished on the grill with house-made barbecue sauce. It's served with bland cole slaw and great fries.

For dessert we had the Apple Crumble ($7, 3 stars), a cinnamon-y kind of apple crisp that hit the spot.


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