With the noise and the trendy clothes and the meat-market atmosphere that sometimes seem to take over the River Market district after the sun goes down, Sonny Williams’ Steak Room comes as kind of a shock.
It’s not hip. It’s certainly not trendy. There’s a guy tickling a grand set of ivories in the bar most nights, but not so’s it will interfere with the conversation. There’s no sign specifying coat and tie, but Sonny Williams’ is that kind of place: Traditional. Upscale. Casual, perhaps — but not in the same way the bars and restaurants are down the street.
It’s dark, but not smoky. Classically decorated, with wood paneling and red fabric screens.
And expensive. Did we mention that?
Don’t get us wrong. Except for the expensive part, Sonny Williams’ is our kind of place. We loved the atmosphere, the feeling of sitting at the grown-ups’ table while the rest of the River Market crowd stayed in the other room with the card tables and folding chairs.
The menu is longer than you might expect, with plenty of choices for each of five courses, plus a nightly chef’s menu that diners can order complete or a la carte. Soups and appetizers are heavy on seafood, particularly crabmeat — four of the 10 appetizer choices have lump crab as a main ingredient.
Entrees include nine steak choices, from a $25 petite filet to the 16-ounce Chateaubriand ($55), plus another eight meat dishes featuring pork chops, veal, duck, chicken or a surf-and-turf combination.
For seafood lovers, Sonny Williams’ offers nine regular entrees. None of our group went the ocean route, but we were tempted by a grilled Chilean sea bass served with a basil and cherry tomato salsa.
Sonny’s award-winning wine list is extensive — it includes more wines by the glass than most restaurants offer by the bottle. There’s also a good selection of half-bottles, and literally dozens of choices by the bottle. We chose a bottle of Rocking Horse zinfandel from Sonoma’s Monte Rosso Vineyard ($47). More about that later.
We started with a couple of appetizers: frog legs in a Grand Marnier butter ($8.25), and a chef’s menu selection, lobster ravioli served with a creamy marinara sauce on a bed of herbs ($10).
We liked the ravioli — a good, basic dish, if not particularly exciting. The frog legs — breaded, fried and served on top of the Grand Marnier butter — seemed a little tough, although we’ll admit to not being an expert in frog legs. The fussiest member of our group said he would have liked the sauce a little less sweet, a little more acidic. He admitted, though, that had Sonny Williams’ reputation not been as good as it is, he would have been less picky.
Things got back on course with the entrees, which hit just about every note perfectly. Our group ordered two steaks — the petite filet and the ribeye ($36) — an herb-crusted lamb chop served with a blackberry sage demi-glace ($32), and the chef’s special, duck breast served with a raspberry sauce ($25).
Our filet was delicious, thick and tender, cooked perfectly to the medium we ordered, with a nice flavorful crust. (We stuck with the basic “Sonny Style,” but you can request Bordelaise, bearnaise or blackened for an extra $2, or Oscar — additional crabmeat — for $9.) Our ribeye-eating companion said the same.
The lamb chops went to Picky Companion, who pronounced them excellent. The blackberry sage sauce, he said, was a perfect match for the lamb; if he would have changed anything, it would have been the breading, which he said was distracting — although he admitted it was a primarily a “stylistic” issue.
The duck came well cooked and juicy. The sauce was less of a hit — the raspberry flavor was so strong that it overwhelmed everything else unless used in small amounts.
Sonny’s side dishes can’t go unmentioned. Entrees come with the vegetable of the day — in our case, fresh green beans cooked with red bell peppers and bacon drippings — and choice of potato or wild rice with walnuts. For anyone who grew up, as we did, eating canned green beans with bacon grease, Sonny’s version lets you know what you missed out on — how good it might have been had Del Monte not slithered its way into our parents’ pantries.
We chose the wild rice, and savored every bit. The rice’s natural nutty flavor combined wonderfully with the walnuts. Our two companions who sampled the garlic mashed potatoes, however, disagreed over whether they were too garlicky.
Our bottle of zinfandel complemented the range of entrees perfectly. It had a smooth, full-bodied flavor, with a bit of pepper on the finish.
Speaking of the finish, Sonny Williams’ dessert menu is plenty tempting as well — but we all agreed that our picks were a bit of a disappointment compared to our entrees. We tried three: a white chocolate creme brulee, a chocolate torte and bread pudding. The brulee was almost too sweet to eat and lacked any real flavor to balance the sugar. The torte was fine but forgettable. The bread pudding had a good flavor, but was a little rubbery — hard to eat with just a spoon. We didn’t finish any of them.
One last note, about the service: Our waiter walked that fine line between properly attentive and obtrusive perfectly.
Our total for four people topped $200, without tax or tip. You could have a perfectly fine meal for less, though — an entree and a glass of wine will get you the best of the Sonny Williams’ experience.
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