I blame the agnolotti. Those delicious little pillows of al dente pasta filled with caponatina — a Sicilian mix of eggplant, caper and olives — sitting in a pond of tomato water and creamy, melty Parmesan have tongue-tied me so thoroughly I’m afraid Chef Michael Mina thinks me a silly hayseed.
Hey, you try to say “agnolotti” or “caponatina” with any authority when a multi-Michelin starred celebrity chef with some 30 restaurants worldwide casually stops by your table on a steamy Tuesday night at his new Sonoma restaurant, Wit & Wisdom.
“Oh, ah, oh! Chef! I love the anlotti. Angliota. Angolia. The cappynota. Capota…ca…,” I mumble with my mouth full.
He looks confused, like maybe I need some medical help. Someone please save me. General Manager Seth Johnson comes to my rescue. “The agnolotti, chef,” he says. Mina’s eyes crinkle like he’s smiling, but it’s hard to tell under the mask. It might be a grimace. I consider climbing under the table.
Tomato, tomahto. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. And he knows it.
The agnolotti is not the only near-perfect dish on the table that night. Every single bite is better than the next, be it Liberty Farms black pepper duck wings or Carbonara Pizza with a soft-boiled egg, black pepper and a Pecorino cheese sauce mixed tableside and poured over the hot pizza.
Mina’s first Wine Country restaurant, recently opened at the Lodge at Sonoma, is so top-to-bottom exceptional, it’s easy to feel a little provincial. Mina and his team are professionals in a Big Fish, Big Pond kind of way, with critically-acclaimed restaurants in Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, Dubai, Seattle and Mina’s home stomping grounds of San Francisco (where he has nine restaurants).
Suffice it to say the MINA group has the immense financial backing, top tier talent and the ability to get everything dialed in right out of the gate because they’ve done it 30-plus times and counting.
Trust me, I didn’t want to totally love it as much as I did, because it’s easy to discount someone like Mina as an outsider who doesn’t understand Wine Country cuisine.
Wrong. He does.
With a legit menu that sources (mostly) locally, there’s not much to poo-poo — except the Olympia Provisions charcuterie plate. Which, while amazing, doesn’t use local charcuterie. That’s honestly my biggest gripe.
“We couldn’t open some of our other restaurants,” Mina says of the pandemic restrictions. “But we wanted to open here.”
Truly it has been a winding road to get the restaurant open at the former Carneros Bistro. More than a year ago, rumors started buzzing about a possible Mina concept. It wasn’t until June that the restaurant seemed to be a sure thing, finally opening in mid-September.
With a large, enclosed outdoor dining area, Wit & Wisdom has plenty of socially-distanced tables. Diners are encouraged to use digital menus accessed by a QR code (though paper menus are available).
A pleasant surprise are the prices, with many dishes under $15 and solid entrees like the pastas under $20. You can gild the lily with higher-end dishes like the Lobster and Black Truffle pot pie ($84), but in general, we were pleasantly surprised by the affordability.
There’s a robust spirit program, with creative cocktails like the Hummingbird ($13) made with mezcal, elderflower liqueur, lemon and passion fruit. The wine list is spectacular and runs 20 pages, as one might expect, with both trophy wines and more approachable sippers. By-the-glass selections don’t disappoint, and we loved a recommendation for a German pinot noir (Enderle & Moll Liaison, Baden, DEU 2016) with soft fruit notes that worked perfectly with the, uh, pasta pillows. Yeah, let’s call them that.
The menu runs two pages for dinner, and recently brunch was added. This is only a small sampling of the dishes.
Savory Pop Tart, $12: You’ll get the joke. A rectangle of crisp puff pastry hides a filling of savory pulled short rib. Accessorized with crispy onions, horseradish cream and flecks of red peppercorn. No toaster needed.
Liberty Farms Duck Wings, $14: Orange peel scented, caramelized duck “wings” are more like duck drumettes. Moist confit-style meat with a crispy Grand Marnier glazed. “Made my knees buckle a little,” said my husband, eating the leftovers.
Roasted Heirloom Carrots, $11: The prettiest dish on the menu. Multicolored carrots are roasted to a sweet softness, piled high with Vadouvan-spiced yogurt, pomegranate seeds, a pool of piquillo pepper sauce and tangerine vinaigrette. Flavor-boosted!
Caponatina Agnolotti, $17: This dish is so good it’s going to land somewhere near the top of my Best of 2020 dishes. It’s not about a single note, but a harmony of light tomato water, carby al dente pasta, restrained caponatina and salty cheese. Just amazing.
Liberty Farms Duck Breast, $32: Not your usual cherry-glaze sweet on sweet take. We like the more savory presentation of medium rare duck atop mustard creamed cabbage. Sadly the poached pears didn’t add a lot, but the pomegranate jus brought the whole thing together.
Carbonara Pizza, $18: A perfectly-blistered wood-fired pizza with crispy guanciale, thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes and a light dusting of cheese. What made it special was the tableside mix of a soft-boiled egg, a tablespoon (at least) of cracked black pepper and fresh Pecorino romano. The sauce is poured over the pizza, imparting a spicy, sharp flavor that’s a foil to the creaminess of the cheese.
The Chocolate Bar, $12: Like the best Snickers you’ve ever had. Mirror-glaze dark chocolate, milk chocolate and dried peanut butter crumble. So sexy.
Bohemian Creamery Cheese Plate, $20: A proud collection of soft and hard goat, cow, sheep and buffalo milk cheeses from this small, women-owned West County creamery with Della Fattoria bread and Napa Valley olives.
Worth A Look
Hot and cold shellfish towers ($79 to $109) include fresh oysters, lobster, crab and shrimp.
Wit & Wisdom is at 1325 Broadway, Sonoma. Open daily for dinner, brunch Saturday and Sunday. 707-931-3405, michaelmina.net/restaurants/wit-wisdom.