Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eater's Remorse: Sonoma Grill Fails at Communication and Other Things

Since becoming a homeowner and a plebian (versus the status of "food writer" I was fortunate enough to enjoy in my beloved New Orleans), Boy and I have had far fewer outings to accommodate our new lifestyle as two of the newest recruits into an elite class known as the house-poor. So when we get to go out for dinner, it's a special treat, and a risk when we try someplace new.

We'd seen a shopping center Italian place advertised quite a bit in our local community ad-rags, so tempted by a prix fixe menu of only $15 for three complete courses, we narrowed down our latest scheduled adventure to Sonoma Grill on Sunrise Highway in Holbrook.

Yes, we should have known better than to choose a strip-mall joint when we had sweet little waterfront villages like Sayville, East Islip, and Islip to choose from only mere minutes away from our house. But $15! And a coupon for a free house appetizer! When all your money goes back into your house, well, you do the math. Cheap eats wins most of the time when the occasion is just that it's a Wednesday.

We were stoked to bypass our usual house-cleaning burrito tradition (Boy cleans the house because he's neat and persnickety; I reward his admirable initiative with a burrito; I also get to eat a burrito; ergo, everyone wins) to try a new restaurant instead, and had high hopes when we pulled up to the spacious restaurant to see that live music was to be played that night. Upon entering, we were greeted with a moodlit metropolitan vibe, and my spirits rose. Maybe there was hope for this shopping center restaurant. After all, diamonds in the rough wouldn't be such if there was no rough.

We were seated quickly and with courtesy, but things quickly went downhill from there. Our waitress, a middle-aged woman with teenaged hair and earrings asked us with no preamble what we wanted to drink. Not even a greeting preceded the brusque question. She left equally abruptly, and returned many moments later with our drinks and some bread and dried herbs with olive oil poured over to dip it in. It was okay.

The prix fixe menu looked pretty passable, and was far, far more affordable than the regular menu, entrees for which averaged around $18 ... a little expensive for the borderline tacky decor and serving staff in t-shirts. A few of the prix fixe selections sounded pretty good, so we decided to go with that, Boy ordering a pasta dish with sweet Italian sausage, and me ordering a grilled chicken entree with a balsamic glaze and fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. I had been leaning more towards the tilapia oreganta, but the waitress informed me that it was very small, which greatly influenced my decision.

We presented the coupon for the free appetizer, wondering if they'd honor it since the verbiage on the prix fixe menu's footer noted that no other specials could be combined with any of those selections. The waitress said that the free app "could not be combined with any other offers," to which Boy responded that the prix fixe was not an "offer" ... it was a menu. The waitress sighed frustratedly, saying that they go through this all the time, and commented snidely that "you don't want me to get the owner here to tell you."

With that attitude, Boy said, "Why not?" Normally non-combative, Boy's dander was up at being spoken to like a misbehaving child who was warned, "Don't make me tell your mom." The waitress sighed again and said she'd be right back.

Moments later, a young girl in glasses in her twenties came over with a faintly exasperated look in her eyes, and reaffirmed that "the coupon couldn't be combined with any other offers" in an extremely patronizing voice. Now that tone got my dander up, because really, who likes being sighed at and spoken to like an idiot? Boy again tried to explain that the prix fixe isn't really an OFFER, and was advertised just as a regular weekday menu, not as a promotion that made the customer exempt from any other special, and that it was wrong for it to be advertised as such and have in the fine print on the actual menu, once the customer was there, that it was exempt from all other deals. (See their verbiage on their website, and you'll see how that's misleading ...)

Getting nowhere with this and arguing more the principle than the actual app (we weren't particularly excited about the overpriced bruschetta that the house app was, but at this point, felt misled and patronized, so were not inclined to be overly cooperative), the snippy girl left to resume her server duties ("owner" my ass ... she was throwing pepper at a busboy on the floor when I passed her to go to the ladies room, and her tables were not too far from ours) and our waitress returned. She asked, "Okay, so do you want me to place the order now?"

Taken aback that the orders she took from us already were NOT in fact in the queue, I merely answered to please do so. Boy was tempted to leave after being treated so shoddily, and I, in hindsight, regret not doing so. But by then, I was already very hungry and had been waiting quite a bit to go eat and lacked to patience to start over.

The salad course was pretty standard. Boy's pasta was fine, al dente and generous in size and sausage as well as cheese, but nothing to write home about. There's something about Long Island marinara that I'm not overly fond of, since it tends to be fairly acidic, thin and strained out, and one-dimensional. Boy liked it, but I wasn't impressed.

My chicken, on the other hand, smelled fabulous and was a large butterflied chicken breast, so it was to my great disappointment to find that it was dry and overcooked, and underseasoned. I am usually of a mind that food out of the kitchen should never be tampered with, but after about five tough bites, had to reach out for the salt shaker to actively combat the blandness. For me to have to grab more seasoning is the ultimate no-no, in my experience. Seasoning should be done outside of the dining room and behind the lines.

Pro: the portions were very sizeable ... it's just a shame eating it became tedious due to the chewiness of the chicken and the lack of sensory appeal.

We took dessert to go, which was a choice of tiramisu, cannoli, or raspberry cheesecake, and the cheesecake was the winner. It was a very smooth cheesecake, rich and soft, with an oat-y textured piecrust, and the raspberry drizzle was tasty, but half an hour after I ate it, it refused to sit still in my stomach, which remained upset for the rest of the evening.

Needless to say, our next outing will be one of the quaint, picturesque restaurants in our nearby villages and we won't be patronizing this establishment again. What a wasted evening.

P.S. I'm definitely not normally this harsh, and we're not normally such pains, but you really had to be there. And obviously, it wasn't just us that felt this communication in their advertising was unclear, since as we were leaving, the table next to ours started up the same rhetoric to ultimately be rebuffed.

P.P.S. It must also be noted that not ALL of the servers were douchey ... just one section over, an exuberant, fun, and friendly young man was playing the role of "awesome waiter," to which I enviously looked over many a time during dinner and wished I were seated in his section. We wouldn't have tackily argued over a tacky coupon were we treated with the friendliness that waiter demonstrated, versus the sour attitude we encountered in our section.

Sonoma Grill
5745 Sunrise Highway 
Holbrook, NY 11741
 (631) 218-3888

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