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COX: Sophisticated comfort food at Sonoma's Cafe 522


You are going to love Caf?522 in Sonoma.

It's classy but not pretentious. On a recent night, one booth was filled with happy local folks in jeans and T-shirts while two pretty young women in trendy outfits sipped wine at the small bar. It's a good bet that no matter who you are, you'll fit right in.

The service is courteous, professional and — a key concept — relaxed. It's rare to find service that warrants real praise, but it's oh so satisfying when you run across it.

The room has been redesigned in a particularly intriguing way. This space used to be a breakfast joint. Then it was home to several restaurants, including Carlo Cavallo's Meritage, Japanese-style Shiso and more recently, Lokal — your local source for Hungarian goulash. Now the d?or is dominated by long swags of material flanking an overhead skylight, cocoon-like hanging light fixtures, and two bricked walls with wooden blocks set into them, each block supporting a flickering tea light, with 46 lights in all. The effect is charming and lively, especially at night.

The place doesn't open until 6 p.m., and when it does, there's cool jazz on the sound system, good bread and fresh-tasting, peppery olive oil and balsamic vinegar brought to you at the bare wood tables.

The quirky and modestly priced wine list is small — 16 white, ros? sparkling and dessert wines, plus 20 reds. There's no corkage on a first bottle if it's a Sonoma County wine; otherwise, corkage is $15. The star of the red wines has to be the 2008 Bucklin "Old Hill Ranch" Zinfandel for $52, a blend of more than 20 varieties planted more than 100 years ago and an homage to the perspicacity of the Italian pioneers who settled Sonoma Valley and planted their wonderful zin-based field blends. This is history in a bottle.

The menu is divided into three parts: earth, which features lacto-vegetarian dishes; sea, for seafood, and land, devoted to meat items. Each of these three categories is segmented into appetizers and small plates, and entrees.

The food can be heavenly. For one example, <CF103>Arctic Char</CF> ($12 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) is a salmon or trout-like fish (it can live in fresh or salt water), a denizen of the far north with pink flesh, here filleted and lightly salt-cured in house, then wrapped around celery-root sticks and paired with ultra-thin radish and apple slices and microgreens. This is a very elegant offering.

Nothing is more elegant than Carolina gold rice, a variety so sought after that wars were waged in Asia in the 19th Century to see who would import it. Today Anson Mills of Charleston, South Carolina, sells this precious rice at $6.95 for just 14 ounces. The middlins, also called rice grits, are broken grains that taste as good as the whole grains and actually accept sauces with more fervor. Chef Daniel Duran uses them to make an <CF103>English Pea Risotto</CF> ($18 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) with fresh peas, maitake mushrooms and dabs of Bellwether Farms' incomparable ricotta. Risotto is easy to get wrong through overcooking or undercooking, but chef does it perfectly and it's bursting with pure flavor.

A 24-hour brining rendered a <CF103>Roasted Chicken Breast</CF> ($22 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) firm but moist, the kind of breast you'd love to slice when it's cold to make a chicken sandwich on whole-grain bread with lettuce and mayo. But here it is, hot and juicy, topped with shavings of Vella jack cheese and paired with farro, English peas and little brown cap mushrooms, all sitting in a swirl of leek cream. Dreamy.

Just as dreamy was the <CF103>Local Lettuces and Asparagus Salad</CF> ($10 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?). The lettuces were the kind that have made Sonoma County produce famous — exquisitely fresh and crunchy-sweet. And the asparagus tips were from thick spears, which are the choice ones. Each spear has a certain number of long fibers running its length. The more slender the spear, the closer the fibers and the tougher the asparagus. Scientific pressure tests have proven that the thicker the spear, the farther apart the fibers and the more soft tissue between them, meaning a more tender spear. Thin slices of radish, shavings of grana padano cheese and a light onion vinaigrette complete this excellent salad.

Is everything this good? No. A <CF103>Maitake Soup</CF> ($8 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) with shiitake slaw and mushroom toast was just okay.<CF103> Burrata Mozzarella</CF> ($12 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) seemed more like farmer cheese than creamy burrata. <CF103>Blue Acadia Mussels</CF> ($14 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) from Washington were nicely plump in a standard broth of white wine, lemon, and herbs, but nothing special. And <CF103>Warm Lemon Chess Pie </CF>($7 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) was a nice lemon curd in a pastry shell with blueberry compote, whipped cream and lemon chiffonade, but not as thrilling as the arctic char and the risotto. But I quibble. The place is great.

<CF103>To sum up:</CF> American comfort food, done with sophistication.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.