LaSalette, Sonoma

Dining at LaSalette starts with a series of paradoxical events. In the heard of Sonoma, right off the picturesque town square, is a small alley that doesn’t quite fit in. On both sides, a handful of questionably fashion stores scream silently “Everything must go!” At the end of the pathway, as you leave the strip mall behind, you’ll find the charming Portuguese restaurant.

A plant-covered patio shelters outside diners from the surrounding touristy fuss. Inside, hand painted Portuguese pottery, terracotta walls and tables made from old wine boxes furnish the quaint dining room. But the paradox goes on. Look closely and you’ll find yourself sandwiched between bland white ceramic floor tiles and office ceiling panels that may be forgivable under the evening light but are too obvious at lunchtime.

On the tables, menus are presented wrapped by white linen napkins. Unlike Bouchon’s elegant execution though, this one resembles something you’d find hanging on your house’s doorknob. Free delivery!

But don’t let appearances deceive you. Make an effort and ignore the questionable surroundings, half-baked ambience, touristy crowd and average service. The magic here happens at the back of the house.

Running the small open kitchen, with the focus and confidence of a skilled surgeon is chef/owner Manuel Azevedo. Along his side, a couple of cooks work in perfect synergy and at incredible speed in the narrow space between a long mis en place and the broiling-hot wood-burning oven.

Watching they work is fascinating. And not many restaurants give you the opportunity to see it so close. If that’s something you enjoy, the very end of the dining counter offers the best seats in the house. It’s like eating in the kitchen (or at the chef’s table). But beware, the oven is hot.

The menu

Once you get over the direct-marketing look, the menu is very appetizing. A mix of traditional Portuguese dishes with revisited classics. I’ve been to LaSalette two times. In my first visit, I tried a few different appetizers you can order as part of the Cheese and charcuterie plate. The selection includes hard-to-find Portuguese cheeses like Serra da Estrela and Queijo do topo as well as great sausages.

The rest of the menu is divided in small courses (large appetizers) and main courses (which are also generous in size). Somewhat out of place are a few sandwiches like burger and BLT, a clear sign that the Portuguese fare may not please the most conservative palate.

The meal

Most of the food at the restaurant is cooked in the hot wood-burning oven and sometimes finished in the regular oven.

The meal starts with Queijo do Topo with herbs over olive oil toasted bread. The quarter-sized amuse bouche is surprisingly flavorful thanks to the pungent cheese. A great start that leaves you wanting more.

The Sardinhas Assadas (baked sardines) is one of the restaurant’s most popular items. They are flash-baked, which crisps the skin while keeping the moisture of the fish inside. Served with caramelized onions, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and red wine vinegar. Although this is a very good appetizer, the large portion size will wear off the novelty of the flavors midway through the dish. I would recommend it to share.

For an authentic Portuguese entrée, order the Bacalhau. A traditional baked casserole of salt cod, potatoes, caramelized onions and olives; served with olive oil and hard-boiled eggs. Although not very common in the United States, salt cod is a popular ingredient in Europe and Brazil. The 500-year-old preservation method consists or salting and drying the filets, which gives them a shelf life of several months or years. To prepare it, the cod is soaked in water overnight so it can absorb back moisture and release the excess salt. The result is a strong flavored flaky fish that resembles lump crabmeat in texture. LaSalette’s Bacalhau is very good. A treat for your palate. But this is no light entrée. The layered cake-shaped dish is rich and filling.

Another signature dish is the Cataplana de marisco. A seafood and white bean stew served in a spherical copper bowl. Shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari are cooked in a flavorful fish broth, a lighter version of the French Bouillabaisse. The Cataplana is good but not remarkable. The presentation is more interesting than the actual dish. If you like seafood, I’d recommend the Fillette do dia, Sardinhas Assadas or Bacalhau that take advantage of the flash-baking preparation.

There is a good selection of Portuguese desserts on the menu. The chef’s specialty is the Arroz doce, described as Azevedos special recipe for Portuguese rice pudding. This is a great dessert, although calling it a rice pudding is an understatement. The sweet rice is served warm accompanied by a light caramel sauce, dried figs and drizzled with cinnamon. Very tasty and not too sweet.

Unfortunately, the espresso is a miss. Poured too long.

In short

The atmosphere at LaSalette is a paradoxical mix of charm and lack thereof. But this provincial eatery shouldn’t be judged as much for its ambience. It’s all about the food. There aren’t many Portuguese restaurants in the United States and this one offers an authentic and flavorful fare that’s worth the trip. But come hungry, or bring someone to share, Portuguese like to eat well. No paradox there.

LaSalette is at 452 First Street East, Suite H, Sonoma, CA
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