For nearly six weeks, the staff of Sonoma’s new Layla restaurant at MacArthur Place were trained in the town’s community center. The longtime hotel and spa were undergoing a massive renovation, and the dining room wasn’t quite ready. So, the staff practiced service where they could, over and over. The time was well spent.
From being flagged at the gate for free valet parking to magical cocktails, polished servers, brilliant food and a cheerily modern interior, the experience is as polished as a new penny.
Ready for a new act, Sonoma’s MacArthur Place has become almost unrecognizable after an overhaul by Arizona-based real estate investment company IMH Financial Corp. The new anchor restaurant, Layla, is perhaps the most impressive of all the changes.
Gone is the cowboy-themed steakhouse, Saddles, now replaced by three upgraded dining options: The Porch (a sort of grab-and-go cafe); a spacious lounge called The Bar at MacArthur Place; and Layla, serving an upscale Mediterranean and New American menu. The property also has a new reception area and updated rooms.
Beyond just a physical transformation, they’ve brought in some serious culinary star power with Executive Chef Cole Dickinson, who has cooked at Acacia House in Napa, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and Hemisphere at the Greenbrier and The Bazaar by Jose Andres in Beverly Hills.
It’s best to take in the whole thing slowly, so make the first stop at the Bar at MacArthur Place. It’s a clubby lounge as comfortable with scotch on the rocks as trendy herb-infused cocktails. If you’re of the latter persuasion (or even if you’re not), start with the blandly named Forager ($14). It’s anything but, with a tableside pour of butterfly pea flower tea into a glass filled with Griffo gin, Italicus Rosolio aperitif, cucumber, basil, lime and fresh herbs. Then prepare to be amazed.
Soaked in water, dried pea flower has an uncanny ability to turn liquid a deep indigo blue — but that’s just the first act. A bit of alchemy involving acid in the citrus creates a bewitching blue-purple-magenta-pink ombre effect that’s like catching a glimpse of a unicorn. There are also you-won’t-miss-what’s-missing spirit-free cocktails and impressive wines by the glass, beer and cider. If you’re a spirit connoisseur, they’ve got an extensive list to choose from.
The adjoining Layla restaurant stands in bright contrast, with windows and skylights filtering onto white and gray wicker furniture.
The new menu is surprisingly short but intensely focused. Shared plates are each more impressive than the last, nothing carelessly tossed on the plate or thoughtlessly delivered to the table. Sometimes a tremendous experience like Layla reminds you how stunningly average it is for restaurants to be stunningly average.
Parker House Rolls aren’t just yeasty little pillows of bread at Layla, but arrive shimmering with coarse salt and a petite bowl of chicken drippin’ and sherry vinegar ($7). It’s a nod to every cook who stuffs a piece of bread into the roasting pan to soak up the lush schmaltz when no one is looking.
A trio of mezze includes baba ganoush made with zucchini instead of eggplant, giving it a sweeter, less bitter flavor, topped with pickled white raisins, dots of black garlic paste and walnuts ($9). Hummus is made with sweet English peas, again, switching up the flavor profile while keeping true to the intent ($9). Served with warm za’atar spiced pita, the tzatziki is fairly straightforward, a creamy-tart ode to dill, cucumber and yogurt. ($9).
Patatas Bravas ($13) are one of the kitchen’s best dishes. Shredded potatoes are cooked, cubed and refried, making them perfectly crisp on every available surface. A hefty blob of whipped garlic aioli — the real stuff, not mayonnaise — jiggles on top, while smoky tomato jam offers a sweet foundation.
Octopus is so often a disappointment, but this version gets it right. Tentacles are first cooked sous vide, then crisped giving them a tender interior and toothsome (but not rubbery) outside. They actually taste like the sea, not a rubber band covered in sauce. Served with a lemon-parsley vinaigrette and potato confit ($21).
Avert your urge to sigh and bypass the beet salad. Inspired by the Turkish dish “pancar salatsi,” beets are diced with whipped creme fraiche and mint, served with thinly sliced cross-sections of fried potatoes ($14).
Nodding to the former steakhouse, a 14-oz New York strip ($56) served rare with port au jus, is grilled over an open flame, giving it a lightly charred exterior and jeweled pink interior. It’s an impressive chunk of meat, but the most amazing act of the dinner menu is the Israeli Couscous ($33).
Served in a modest yellow bowl, it’s almost disappointing how small the portion is. One bite, however, and the universe reveals itself in a flood of melted butter, creamy Maine lobster, shellfish jus, tender couscous and a hint of lemon. Angels descend. Mikes drop. Curtain closes.
Layla at MacArthur Place: Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma, 800-722-1866, macarthurplace.com.