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The unassuming little restaurant, Hot Box Grill, is one of Sonoma's very special dining experiences

There is a little restaurant on the Lido in Venice, Italy, that serves a classic tortellini in brodo (a few tortellini in broth with a sprinkling of fresh parsley). The tortellini are lovely, but the broth is ethereally delicious. It whispers of sunshine and nourishment rather than shouts about meat. It's simply perfect, but it's rare.

The only other place I've found that quality of broth is at the Hot Box Grill in Sonoma, in a dish called Duck Raviolo in Spiced Broth ($9 ****).

The raviolo — a single, large, stuffed pasta (ravioli is the plural) — combined the rich, meaty flavor of duck with tender pasta, but the strong duck flavor didn't infuse the broth. The broth had a slight hint of spicy heat, as if a split serrano pepper and a piece of fresh ginger had taken a quick dip in the hot liquid, but above that, each spoonful had elegance, refinement and sophistication.

Hot Box Grill

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Those are three qualities not easily achievable in a busy kitchen, but chef Norm Owens manages the trick. He's a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, worked with celebrity restaurateur Michael Mina in San Francisco, at Bottega in Yountville, and Canlis in Seattle, and now has turned the Hot Box Grill into one of those very special restaurants that are hometown secrets, like Caf?LaHaye in Sonoma, where Owens was also the former executive chef.

One of the high points of the Hot Box experience is the good service — friendly but not stuffy, energetic but not flailing, compliant but not obsequious. However, on a recent night, only two waiters dealt with a full house and it looked like they were shorthanded.

Nightly dinner specials and wine specials are chalked on the restaurant's back wall. The wall recently featured a Sancerre and Vouvray — two Loire Valley whites — to augment the small (10 wines) list of well-chosen local wines. If you bring wine, corkage is $15, which is waived if you also buy a bottle from the list.

The room is compact, with seating for 32 people and an open kitchen where you can see Owens and his sous chef working. Monochrome woodcuts decorate the cream-colored walls. But the d?or dissolves into insignificance when the food starts arriving. The cuisine is a little French, a little Italian, a little Californian and all delicious.

Dinner started with Country Pate ($10 ***?), a well-made pork pate wrapped in bacon that had a lively, fresh flavor. It was served with sliced cornichons, pickled red onion, and whole-grain mustard sprinkled with a few grains of sea salt. Here's an appetizer to pair with that glass of Vouvray.

For a fall treat, Owens has created a Persimmon "Carpaccio" ($7 ***) made of thin slices of crisp, raw fuyu persimmon — the non-astringent kind that can be eaten when still hard as an apple. The "carpaccio" is dressed with diced apple bits mixed with honey in a vinaigrette, along with endive, pomegranate seeds and crushed pistachios.

A marvelous little salad of frisee, Italian parsley and mint dressed in an orange vinaigrette accompanied Roasted Beets ($9 ***?). Roasting until the beets shrink within their skins and partially caramelize really boosts their flavor. And if you need some complementary flavors, there's also fresh goat cheese and olive tapenade on the plate.


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