The roadhouse at 9900 Sonoma Highway has once again returned to life.
For the last month, since the opening of Salt and Stone in the iconic location, the parking lot has been packed, the bar once again a gathering spot for the Valley and the restaurant is doing such a brisk business that owners David and Diane LaMonica are hustling in the kitchen and dining room of the Kenwood restaurant as hard as any of their staff.
“I’ve been here every day since we opened,” chirps Diane, as she flutters about seating guests, filling water glasses, expediting bar food and creating a generous warmth as inviting as the restaurant’s crackling fireplace.
For more than a decade, LaMonica and her husband owned Mendocino’s Cafe Beaujolais, also known for its combination of charm and destination-worthy food. As residents of Santa Rosa, they’ve long dreamed of opening a restaurant here, and when the former KenWood spot shuttered and then floundered between potential new owners, they decided to jump in with both feet.
One of the reasons they’re succeeding so spectacularly out of the gate? My theory is their welcoming attitude to nearby Oakmonters. With more than 4,500 residents, local restauranteurs ignore them at their peril. Eschewing the disposable incomes, passion for food and weekday patronage of these seniors has been the death knell for several restaurants in the area, and the LaMonicas have created an atmosphere, price point, and menu the community is embracing. Not that the Oakmonters are the only patrons, but on one visit, a single young couple sat in the window as the dining room filled with mostly mature diners. A second Thursday night visit found both the bar and dining room full by 5:30 p.m., with jovial retirees gathered around the bar fireplace, filling tables in couples and foursomes, opening expensive wines and relishing in the food.
It’s also a homecoming for many. For decades, Chef Max Schacher’s served simple French-California cuisine in the space, with approachable dishes like Caesar salad and Dungeness crab cakes and salmon. Schacher sold the Kenwood Grill in 2013 to restaurateur Bill Foss, who brought a high-concept vibe and frequently-changing seasonal menu to the space–something that didn’t always fly with Schacher’s longtime regulars.
The LaMonicas, who hired Meadowood and French Garden alum Arturo Guzman to head the kitchen, have taken a more moderate approach, with an extensive—like really, really extensive—menu of classics including Caesar salad, onion soup, steak, and roasted chicken, and there’s not much to dislike. With a full oyster selection, specialty cocktails and classics, charcuterie and cheese boards, eleven appetizers, eleven entrees, 3-course bistro night selections (beef bourguignon, coq au vin, braised lamb shank), nine desserts and a happy hour menu, it’s more a matter of narrowing choices after perusing both the daily menu, dinner menu and wine list. Eager staff, however, are more than happy to guide your choices, should things get overwhelming.
“Everyone will come once,” said Diane, “but our job is to keep them coming back.” If the packed parking lot is any indication, they’re coming back in droves to Kenwood’s gathering spot.
– Marinated Grilled Octopus ($18): When you can cut octopus with a single stroke of a butter knife, it’s something to rave about. Tender and flavorful, beautifully plated with chickpeas, pickled red onions, and arugula. Guzman’s plating is spectacular, and little touches, like homemade potato chips (gaufrette) with the ahi tuna poke or delicate couscous with salmon make dishes feel special rather than ho-hum.
– Ahi Tuna Poke ($18): Too many chefs phone in this classic, but Guzman pumps up the flavor with seaweed salad, wasabi cream, and shiso oil, along with plenty of sesame oil.
– Steak Tartare ($19): Raw beef can be a turn off for some, but with 25-year sherry vinegar, a raw quail egg and crispy crostini, it was almost impossible not to shovel this into my face as fast as possible. The sharp tang of vinegar, the velvet texture of beef and creaminess or a raw egg are a revelation.
– Crispy Skin Salmon ($25): We’re taking a guess on Atlantic salmon, due to the mildness of the fish and lighter color, but the true test of this fish is in the cooking: Just cooked in the center, flakey throughout, with a crisp skin on a bed of lemon couscous. A solid choice for lighter eaters.
– Petit Filet ($25): Steak is steak is steak, in my book, which is why I don’t often order it. Here, though, it’s a staple, with ribeye, filet mignon, and flat iron selections, along with the petit filet. Cooked rare, the flavor is delicate, and almost doesn’t stand up to the blue cheese butter (still slightly frozen) atop the filet. Push the pat aside, and let it melt into the duck fat roasted fingerling potatoes and wild mushrooms.
– Happy Hour 1/4 lb. house ground burger ($6): Though tiny, this is a mighty burger, served with cheddar aioli on a brioche bun. No shortcuts here, with lots of beefy, juicy flavor. Nom.
– French Onion Soup ($9): I like my french onion soup to take command of the bowl, with pungent caramelized onions, a bit of sherry, and Gruyere that can stand up to a broiler and win. This version was a bit of a wallflower.
The Takeaway: Solid classics and an extensive menu in an affable and iconic Sonoma Valley roadhouse.
Perks: Great Happy Hour deals from 2:30 to 5:30pm Monday through Friday; 3-course bistro nights include a hearty entree, soup or salad and dessert with a glass of wine for $35 (M-W); excellent local wines by the glass and in 20 oz. carafes, along with a value-oriented by-the-bottle program from sommelier Krista McCracken.
Salt and Stone, 9900 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, 707-833-6326, saltstonekenwood.com. Open daily from 5 to 9p.m., happy hour from 2:30 to 5:30p.m. Monday through Friday.