Though Sonoma’s cozy Hot Box Grill glided almost imperceptibly onto the Wine Country culinary scene in August, there’s no mistaking an impending crackle and hum all around the place — a contagious electricity that makes eaters’ “Next Big Thing” Spidey sensor tingle.
For good reason. At the helm is Chef Norman Owens, a young gun whose two-year stint at Cafe La Haye repeatedly landed it on numerous Wine Country Top 20 lists. His previous kitchens have included Seattle’s Canlis (often called the birthplace of Northwest cuisine), Jeanty at Jack’s and Aqua in San Francisco. After leaving La Haye, Owens spent time at Bottega in Yountville.
The Spot: With help from his brother Will Forbes and wife, Addie, Owens spent the summer gutting the once-dreary Thai restaurant in the upcoming “gourmet gulch” of Boyes Hot Springs. It’s now an airy, open eatery with chalkboard paint on several walls with handwritten daily specials. Everyone continues to man the kitchen, with Will as Norman’s kitchen-twin and Addie’s pushing the guys aside when it comes to dessert.
The Style: Despite his cherubic looks, Owens has chops. The basis is Classical-French (and this boy knows is sauces, whipping up a complicated Bearnaise as French Fry dunking sauce — no mean feat). Norman gives it a Wine Country twist paying homage to his favorite local farmers and purveyors and fusing some Italian and Mediterranean flavors into the mix. Recognizable comfort-foods (twice baked potatoes, fried chicken, daily pasta specials) make Hot Box a returnable weeknight favorite rather than a just-for-occasions eatery.
Eat This: There’s so much to love about this menu. Duck fat fries with Bearnaise sauce ($6); Ricotta gnocchi with golden beets, pea shoots and oregano oil ($9); fried Cornish game hen with sweet potato gratin and Hot Box Hot Sauce ($20); the porktactular Cider-brined tenderloin with apple/bacon pan sauce, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts ($21). Desserts change up frequently, but roasted pumpkin creme brulee with honey-glazed hazelnut pumpkin cake ($8) was a warm, fall hug of a dessert.
Daily Wow: Here, it’s really worth checking out what Norm and his crew are featuring on the hand-written daily specials wall. From wines by the glass to daily pasta specials, appetizers and entrees, they’re solid selections.
The Smooth Operator: The date-night grilled cowboy steak is a 32oz bone-in ribeye for two with horseradish creme fraiche, Brussels, twice baked potato, crispy onions and red-eye gravy. Easily feeds three, or one really hungry person. $60.
The Wow Factor: Presentation is everything, and even simple comfort classics and humble desserts get a serious spiffing in the kitchen. Expect to be impressed at the plating, and doubly wowed with the flavors. Service is spot-on.
Nobody’s Perfect: We loved the idea of the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mouse, brownie, Captain Crunch Anglaise dessert, but the brownie was a bit too dense. Bonus points, however for the creativity, and make no mistake, we ate it all. Seating can be a bit tight on busy nights.
Hot Box Grill: 18350 Highway 12, Sonoma, 939-8383. Reservations recommended.Gourmet Gulch | Hot Box Grill | Norman Owens | Sonoma | sustainable | Wine Country