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SONA (long review) - won't be back

As the menu seems different from previous posts, I've decided to start a new thread on a place that seems to be 'love-it-or-hate-it'.

Our #1 choice – on paper- for our visit to LA was Sona. Fairly good reviews; a celebrated chef and a real bonus; they would serve us substantially different tasting menus, so we could try many more dishes.
So it was with great expectations that we arrived at Sona.
Strangely, all the early arrivals were sat at adjacent tables – in two groupings. Our stomachs were on a 3-hour time-lag, so we had an early reservation. The wines listed on the menu as being available for the tasting menu seemed pretty good, although I did wonder why the same wines would (apparently) be served for 2 different tasting menus. But there was a notation that “the before mentioned wines are subject to change at the discretion of the Sommelier”, so there could be some adjustments. I went for the $125 pairing to go with the $169, 9-course degustation menu (in for a penny, in for a Grand).
And they even offered to email us the menu, so my notes are relatively sparse (I noted the main ingredient, but not always the accompaniments).
Unfortunately, the email still hasn’t arrived, so I’m finding it challenging to describe why the food just didn’t zing! Nothing wrong with it – but I’ve never paid more for less enjoyable food. A few gimmicks that were fun – and genuine Wagyu beef – and that’s an expensive ingredient.
But the real challenge for me was the wine pairings. In particular a couple of the ‘menu’ wines were eagerly anticipated.
The 1999 Maison Vincent Girardin Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, should have been excellent. It retails for about $90-100 (on their wine list it’s about $150). Instead we were served a 2004 St Aubin (didn’t note whether it was a Grand Cru or not; Grand Crus retail for about $45; regular St Aubin for about $25).Also ‘promised’ was the Leoville Lascases 97 (retails from $120-150). Instead we received the Château Monbousquet 2002 (widely available from $50-60). So the wines that attracted me were substituted ‘at the Sommelier’s discretion’ for wines retailing for maybe half of those advertised. Leaves a bitter taste in the mouth! Most of the other wines were less familiar to me – but I don’t recall a single wine being the one ‘illustrated’ (e.g. a Scheurebe was listed, one of my favorite grapes – but wasn’t served; the Champagne was listed as Jacquart Rosé – we got Audoin de Dampierre NV (similar price)).

Back to the food – there may be several errors of spelling/misunderstanding so don’t hold me to account – I didn’t get the memo!

1st course (this was possibly the amuse – but I’ll just list the food in order served):
Kabuchi Squash tempura with carrot foam, pumpkin seed and pumpkin oil:- pretty good start; the crunch of the pumpkin seeds worked well and added interest.
Wine: Audoin de Dampierre NV (50% chard, 50% pinot noir):- very light and flowery; elderberry nose; good mousse; some acid to support but not complex with a hazelnut background (possibly slightly oxidized).

2nd course:
a) Shrimp sushi with dashi ravioli (and some wasabi)
b) Fluke with ‘Forbidden Rice’ & Salsify (and some nori)
Both dishes very fresh and tasty, especially the shrimp sushi (sliced) that melted in the mouth. Speculate that the shrimp was slightly ‘cooked’ in an acid marinade.
Wine: Tocai Friulano from Scopetti; serviceable but unmemorable (I would have chosen a Sake).

The breads were served here: Choice of 4, of which the baguette was the clear favorite.

3rd course:
a) Ponzu glazed sushi
b) Stinging nettle gnocchi with rabbit leg confit and pancetta
Don’t recall the sushi selections. The gnocchi were somewhat heavy and I couldn’t determine the flavor of nettle – but otherwise a good dish.
Wine: 2006 Vieux Telegraphe Blanc: this was the match for the rabbit dish. I don’t get excited by White Rhônes – but that’s not the restaurant’s fault. Good weight but I would have served a light red (Valpolicella?).

4th course:
a) Nantucket Scallops and Stone Crab ??(my notes seem to read “Cartoun” – not sure what that was)! Why would these be brought all the way from the east coast? However great texture and good flavor.
b) Butter Poached John Dory with Chicken Livers and Chanterelles – silky decadent and buttery.
Wine: 2004 St Aubin – Château de Puligny-Montrachet: A disastrous match – the wine was totally swamped by the richness of the food. Needed something weightier. ASIDE: This was the point that I started to seriously question the wines listed – I had been waiting for the Corton-Charlemagne and it was ‘made for this dish’.

5th course:
a) Pork Belly with celery root and celery root puree and some kind of salad that I don’t clearly recall.
b) Duck (& something I can’t read) with purple yam and passion fruit
For me, Pork Belly (or bacon) qualifies as an essential food group. And I also love celeriac. So can’t really criticize that dish – except to say I’ve had better. The texture of the pork belly was a little too greasy and the crust/crackling chewy rather than crisp. The only thing I recall about the duck dish was that it seemed really tough and chewy.
Wine: Failla 2005 Pinot Noir – Sonoma Coast; a new winery to me, Serviceable yet lacked complexity. But a fair match.

6th course:
a) Veal Cheek with Potato & Seaweed Pavé (& shallots).
b) Venison with huckleberry sauce, sunchoke purée and seaweed salad.
The seaweed was particularly nasty and destroyed the wine (again!).
Wine: 2002 Mas de Soleil (Rhone blend from South of France – predominantly Grenache). On paper a good match with the meat – but certainly not with the seaweed.

7th course:
a) Wagyu beef with wasabi
b) Same
I’ve had Wagyu maybe 4 times, and this was certainly the most ‘fatty’ mouth feel (which is supposedly a good thing as the higher the quality the more marbling). Almost like the texture of foie gras – but a beef flavor. Have to admit that the ‘greasy’ texture didn’t impress me. But full marks for quality on the plate.
Wine: 2002 Château Monbousquet: Or perhaps it was the wine that left a bad taste in my mouth – just too light for this dish – but mostly because it wasn’t Leoville Lascases and by this stage in the meal I was so disappointed in the wines (especially the price charged) that I may have been looking for faults.

Another ASIDE here: The pacing of the meal had been VERY aggressive – we were still comfortably under 2 hours into the meal at this point. Also, I noted that we had been ‘offered’ Black Truffles for a $30 supplement when the original menu options had been described. But the subject never came up again (possibly could have been if we had ordered a la carte).

Next course (optional) cheese board was offered. We declined – combination of rapid service and the wine issue had made us a little wary of the restaurant selecting anything for us (no price was mentioned and we didn’t ask).

8th course:
a) Licorice Root Sorbet with Citrus sauce
b) Same
No wine.
Some small black seeds in the sauce to give it crunch, but don’t recall what they were.

9th course:
a) Vanilla Pannacotta, with Squid Ink Ice Cream and preserved Lemon and a nut crunch
b) Milk Tuile with Apricot Cake & Huckleberry sauce
My notes comment that this was the third time this evening for huckleberry – yet I can only find one previous reference! The squid ink ice cream is an “acquired taste” – left it.
Wine: 2003 5 Puttonyos Tokay – Royal Tokaji Company. Very familiar with this wine. Great value.

10th course:
a) Chocolate Soup with Chocolate Brioche & Black Raisins
b) Chocolate Gelée, Chocolate Meringue, Burned Orange Chocolate and maybe a mint item too.
Sparse notes on this course.
Wine: 2005 Kracher Chardonnay & Pinot Blanc Beerenauslese – mostly botrytis, no detectable grape variety.

Mignardises: Financier (? Almond & Rose petal); Passion Fruit Gelée; Chocolate Cherry Vinegar (?) Marshmallow.

So around 2½ hours – fairly fast, but great for turning the table. Around $300 per person BEFORE tax and tip. Food competent with solid ingredients but nowhere near cutting edge. Wine – AmuseGirl has censored my opinion on the grounds that it’s not objective.
Won’t return. Just not worth the price charged.
With the check, a comment card was included, which I completed in detail, particularly describing my issues with the wine. I included my email address. The offer of being emailed the menu was accepted by AmuseGirl using her business card and a different email address. Neither of us have received any communication.

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  1. I did the 9 course with wine pairings back in May- it was a "survived finals" treat to myself. They cut the wine price in half saying they would give us half the wine but ended up pouring us what was probably the full amount anyway. (we were a bit hesitant to go with $125 for wine) I thought the food was delicious but wasn't that impressed with the wine pairings either. I'm clearly not the wine taster you are, but I didn't feel that they all matched well. We didn't feel rushed and loved the experience but overall, thought it was on the pricey side. I would still recommend the tasting menu to someone, though, minus the wine pairing.

    Agree with hrhboo, so many options, so little time!

    1. 2 1/2 hours for 10 courses definitely makes it sound like they rushed you, since we usually take that long for 5 or 6. That plus the cost makes me inclined to join you in staying away.

      1. I'm sorry you didn't have a great meal. Each time I've gone, I've always had such great service and spectacular food. But I will say that the only time I've been disappointed was when we did indulge in the tasting menu. The food wasn't on the same level as I've come to expect it to be. And I've heard that from others who would try the tasting menu. I've stuck to just ordering straight off the menu after that and haven't been let down since.

        1. Sorry to hear you weren't floored by your experience at Sona. I'm with you; for the money, it should be sensational.

          However, if the wine pairings were the main draw, I would have told the sommelier I was egerly expecting the wines as advertised or of equal quality/cost before the meal started.

          1 Reply
          1. re: vinosnob

            I did comment early in the progression that the wines weren't as advertized. I was then told about the 'adjustment at discretion' issue (which I hadn't seen - but it was clearly marked on the menu). I didn't think it necessary to make a comment about 'equal price' - neither would I expect to do so. It should be unnecessary at this level of dining. However, the ethics of changing ALL the wines is problematic for me. Kinda like ordering a beef bourgignon and getting served chicken pot pie "at the discretion of the chef'.

          2. I haven't been to Sona yet, but am disappointed to hear about the wine pairings, especially at that price. yeepers. And especially as it sounds like somewhat false advertising.
            I didn't think the food at Providence sparkled that much, but the wine pairings sure did! I'm nowhere at your wine knowledge level, but each wine served matched each course so well, including the duck that we subbed in for the beef.

            1 Reply
            1. re: slacker

              My other destination was Providence - still working on that review!

            2. could the cartoun have been cardoons?

              1. I agree wholeheartedly. When I went, it was just o.k. David was in the kitchen and even came to our table after the meal and seemed genuinely puzzled at my polite but non-gushing reaction. Michelle was there as well. Her desserts were great and the meal was good. Just good, and that's not enough for what they charged us as well.

                1 Reply
                1. re: cls

                  Sona has not risen from a very low spot on my list of places to try. 10 courses in 2hrs is way to fast. I still find the menu to be too gimmicky and evidence of a chef who is still somewhat immature in his field.

                  Even being a wine novice, I do recognize the two they replaced and would have been upset with the bait and switch.... they should have replaced at least one with a strong wow factor.

                2. while it's still a great restaurant, the price, in this case, may not be right - some dishes are spot on amazing while others are definitely just so-so - which is not really acceptable at the price point - still i admire the adventurousness in a lot of the efforts and the desserts when i've been there have always been so unique that you couldn't even begin to compare with anything else

                  and with regards to the wine - i honestly don't think this is a good "wine" restaurant - for whatever reason the selections i've had there are just okay - i don't leave there with new discoveries or keepers that i take with me forever