In January, chef-owner Manuel Azevedo stepped back to rethink his LaSalette Restaurant in downtown Sonoma. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the charming little Portuguese bistro wasn’t really challenging him anymore, he decided.
So he turned his successful, reliably busy lunch and dinner place upside down, and ditched his a la carte menu to offer a dinner service-only format of three ($55) or five ($85) course prix fixe menus. Ingredients got even more daring — thick, tentacled gooseneck barnacles bathed in white wine, garlic, parsley and piri piri chile, perhaps.
“Do I take the risky path, and challenge the limits of LaSalette’s potential and of mine?” he had mused at the time. “I chose to follow my heart, and further advance LaSalette into the special place I’d dreamt of 20 years ago.”
Except by late March, Azevedo changed back to his original concept. He and his staff loved creating the more intricate experience, but customers weren’t warming up to structured meals.
I for one, am happy to see a la carte again. LaSalette is one of my favorite restaurants, and I like a full feast. But I also love being able to stop in on a whim for glass of Quinta do Regueiro Reserva Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2015 (3 oz. $5.75/6 oz. $10.50/bottle $38) and a light bite in a trio of crispy, moist salt cod cakes arranged around swaths of cilantro aioli and Moroccan black olive coulis ($13).
Besides, some of Azevedo’s more intriguing prix fixe dishes remain, like the mantaca de porco sampler appetizer of succulent seared pork belly, housemade linguiça and rich, dense morcella (blood sausage) tempered with taro root and zippy citrus ($14).
Simply put, LaSalette is one of Northern California’s best restaurants, from its smooth attention by formal servers in black and white garb, to its thoughtfully presented plates often adorned with colorful swirls of sauce and edible flowers. If fashioning these beautiful dishes has become easy for the chef and his crew, well, that’s a good thing for us.
When Azevedo unveiled his new menu, he also debuted a refreshed look for the 40-or-so seat place hidden away at the back of the Mercado building off the Sonoma Plaza. The lovely rust-painted Portuguese tiles still steal the show, and the wood burning oven still dances with flames behind the bar next to the semi-open kitchen; it’s all just been brightened up.
On a recent evening, as I sat sipping my amuse-bouche shot glass of foamy, tart red and yellow beet puree, one of the cooks started singing. Through the dining room windows, I watched other guests lounging with their dogs on the sunny patio. And I nibbled on house smoked rabbit, the sweet meat shredded and arranged atop slabs of soft potato, tangy curls of pickled onion, and tiny bits of Santos Family presunto (ham, $14).
I’ve visited all across Portugal’s rural Douro vineyard region twice, and LaSalette shares the area’s more simple cuisine with rustic dishes such as bacalhau no forno, a homey, salt cod casserole dotted with potatoes, onions and olives ($24) that’s properly pungent and slightly briny. We can also finish off whole roasted branzino with our fingers, if we do it delicately, pulling every last speck of the mild meat off the bone (don’t miss the ultra flavorful fish cheeks). The body is sliced through the silver skin for easy dismantling, dressed with sliced bell peppers, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and a good amount of garlic in a pond of parsley-saffron vinaigrette ($36).
Yet mostly, this is more big city cooking, a la Porto and Lisbon. That’s evident in refined dishes like foie gras sweetened with a Madeira reduction and splayed with smoked duck breast and quince coulis ($18), or the perfectly wood oven-seared day boat scallops ($15) glistening in a dark gold crust of crumbled chouriço (chorizo) displayed with Japanese sweet potato puree, leek confit and molho cru (chimichurri). For both dishes, it’s best to get a small bit of each component on your fork, to appreciate how the flavors come together.
Caldeirada —Portuguese fisherman’s stew — has long been a signature here, and it’s a bargain at $26 for a generous bowl of sea bass, scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp, linguiça and potatoes in deeply seasoned, fragrant tomato broth. Servers happily brought me more rolls for dunking, the vaguely sweet buns perfumed with cinnamon, cumin and allspice.
Feijoada Completa is another classic, as the Brazilian national dish of tender stewed beef, braised pork and smoked sausage curled around a molded tower of salsa-topped rice alongside black beans, orange segments and ribbons of pleasantly bitter stewed greens ($25).
Here’s one dish I hope remains on the menu forever, meanwhile: açorda ($22). Crispy asparagus wands, earthy artichoke, fava beans and pine nuts nestle around a soft square of country bread, all lounging in a buttery, salty fresh lemongrass-truffle broth. The crowing touch: a slow cooked egg on top.
Azevedo’s inventiveness continues into dessert, with unexpected twists to olive oil cake. The fluffy square is topped in tangy, almost sour queijo fresco ice cream and flower petals, then partnered with crunchy sweet croutons and a slice of candied chouriço that lends its spicy sausage-paprika notes against a crackly sugar skin ($8).
And after that, the chef thanks us for coming with a complimentary sweet treat such as a tiny white chocolate-cashew-passion fruit truffle.
Any meal here, and it’s clear that the LaSalette team’s hearts are still fully in their work.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.