For me, the least interesting restaurant in the new Santa Monica Place is the Sonoma Wine Garden. Yet it’s one of the most popular, and it has the best views.

What’s good? The Charcuterie plate, the pizza, and all of the salads. And those are the dishes people are eating, while enjoying the California sunshine. I particularly liked the fresh fig and arugula salad for $12. The figs were just at the right stage of ripeness, the hazelnuts added a nice flavor, the dressing was not too tart, but just right, and the arugula was very fresh. The pie of the day went by, and it looked very tasty.

I mentioned the view, but the inside décor is also nice, and the restaurant has a good feel to it, with a wine theme to set the mood.

And while we’re talking about what’s good, let’s mention the service. Nice friendly wait staff, and plenty of them so there’s not too much waiting. Mary, who last waited on me, seemed to know the menu well, and was conversant with the wines by the glass as well. She and I finally agreed on the Weissburgunder Heidi Schrock Burgenland Austrian wine (2008) for $15 a glass, and it was delightful: floral nose, floral flavors with a touch of tartness from the mild acidity, and a beautiful color.

But then there is the menu and the food preparation. The first time I ate there my medium rare Sonoma Burger was overcooked and dry. That can happen anywhere. But the next time I ate there I decided to try one of the strange entrees on the menu, and I settled on the Kaiserschmarrn. This was described as a “caramelized Austrian pancake soufflé with raisins and roasted plums” ($12). I was warned in advance that it would take 20 minutes to cook, but that was OK since it gave me time to sip my wine and eat an appetizer.

I should have taken a picture to illustrate what arrived, since it’s hard to describe. It certainly was not a pancake. It was not caramelized. It looked like someone had chopped up a bunch of polenta and dropped apricot jam on top of it. There were no raisins, but there might have been some slices of almonds. All I can figure out is that the chef slipped when trying to remove the pancake from the pan, it fell on the floor and he tripped over it, then picked up the pieces and dropped the plum jam on top and sent it to my table.

Of course Mary should not have served it, and she mentioned, in passing, that it looked different from the other times she had seen it.

As with all of the restaurants in Santa Monica Place, you can’t lunch there if you’re on a budget. A salad, inexpensive main course, and glass of wine, with tax and tip, came to $50.

And what about the wines? They have an experienced wine person who must have a very good personality because everyone I’ve talked to so far says what a great person he is. And I like the selection of wines, which is not the usual suspects one finds in those restaurants where all the wines come from Southern and the other big distributors. This list had been given a lot of thought, and the wines are quite delicious. But, like almost everywhere, they are too expensive. There are no wines by the glass under $10, and generally it takes $15 to get a glass of what I want to drink. The Australian white that I drank (see above) sells retail for about $25 a bottle, so at $15 a glass they are charging $75 a bottle (there are usually five glasses to a bottle).

Other wines on the wine by the glass list range in retail pricing from $18 to $25, but still are priced at $15 a glass. That’s too much for the Navarro Argentine Malbec, that I can buy for $12 wholesale.

The Sonoma Wine Garden has some fixing up to do, but I predict it will be a nice addition to the Santa Monica scene, and a nice place for local ladies to meet for a salad and a glass or two of wine.

If You Go

Sonoma Wine Garden

395 Santa Monica Place, Suite 300

www.sonomawinegarden.com

(424) 214-4560

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Lunch: Monday – Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Happy Hour: Daily, 2:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Dinner: Daily, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com

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