Hits and misses at El Dorado Kitchen

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El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma has had its ups and downs in the six years since it opened. Its first chef was Ryan Fancher, the talented cook who's now enlightening palates at Barndiva in Healdsburg, and the food was consistently wonderful. But things change, and now the menu is pocked with hits and misses.

An example of a hit is Mixed Lettuces Salad ($10 3? stars). Tender, sweet, young lettuce leaves in shades of red and green, taken from butterhead types and cut from looseleaf varieties, mix with bitter chicories and tangy sprouts. Point Reyes blue cheese crumbles and candied walnuts hide among the leaves with pomegranate seeds, making the perfect winter salad. The greenery is dressed in sherry vinaigrette. Every salad should taste this good.

An example of a miss is Butternut Squash Soup ($9, 1 star). Roasted butternut squash has a lovely mellow and rich flavor, entirely missing from this tasteless soup. It does have an aroma of cinnamon and cloves from the five spices used to jazz it up. Roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) give it some toasty flavor, and it has been given a drizzle of what the menu calls pumpkin oil, which is the oil from the pumpkin's nutritious seeds. The six small marshmallows floating on the surface of the soup seem gratuitous, adding nothing.

The current executive chef is Armando Navarro, assisted by a small group of chefs who can be seen working in the open kitchen.

At the other end of the room is a full bar, and outside is a pool and one of the prettiest patios in Sonoma for dining al fresco, presided over by a large fig tree.

Inside, the dining area is dominated by a 21-foot long table made from a plank sawn from a single tree trunk and rescued from an old Vermont bridge.

The wine list is interesting, with a very cosmopolitan selection of wine. Watch those prices, though. A glass of 2008 Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile's Aconcagua Valley is $16. There are about five five-ounce glasses in a bottle, so those glasses would bring in $80. A quick check of online wine sellers shows the wine selling retail for about $20 a bottle.

To be fair, there are some bargains. The 2008 Terradora Dipaolo Aglianico from Campania, Italy, is an affordable $33 a bottle. It sells in retail shops for about $15 and is a juicy, chewy wine for the money. The corkage fee for bottles brought in by customers is $15.

Service was swift but lacked finesse. Our table was against a wall, so the only way for the server to take away finished plates on my right was for her to reach across in front of me, which she did.

But I think an "Excuse me," or "May I take away those plates?" would have been in order, just out of politeness.

Duck Confit and Foie Gras Terrine ($16, 3 stars) was a nice piece of work, with pieces of duck confit and creamy-smooth foie gras sliced from a meaty loaf and paired on the plate with minced pear, slices of Asian pear, toasted brioche and our native western huckleberries, which are relatives of cranberries, blueberries and lingonberries.

A tendency to over-sell things shows up in the Pumpkin Carnaroli Risotto ($24, 1? stars). One of the ingredients listed on the menu is "wild mushroom." But the server checked with the kitchen and reported that the mushroom in the risotto is the king trumpet which, while cultivated here on mushroom farms, is native not to California but to the Mediterranean region eastward to India.

It joins a bit of black truffle to suffuse the rice with mushroom's umami or savory flavor. The inclusion of mascarpone cheese rendered the dish thick and gooey.

A Roasted Petaluma Chicken ($25, 3 stars), the so-called "airline cut" of breast with the first wing joint attached, was succulent, with that deliciousness that properly roasted chicken achieves. It was perched on a winter vegetable medley of butternut squash, turnips, onions and mushrooms.

Lamb Roulade ($25, 2 stars) defied expectations. A roulade is a French term for a dish that is commonly a slice of meat rolled around a filling, secured with string or a toothpick, and browned or braised.

This was just a pile of roasted, shredded lamb served with lima beans, peppers, Swiss chard and an intense olive tapenade that upstaged all the other flavors on the plate.

The dessert list was strange, unless you like the idea of fried pumpkin pie or sourdough chocolate pudding. We ordered the Citrus Cremeux ($11, 1 star), a sweet substance with the texture of Crisco and no discernible citrus flavor. The desserts need work.

To sum up: At El Dorado Kitchen, you pays your money and takes your chances.

(The restaurant will be closed for the first three weeks of January for kitchen maintenance work.)

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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