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The Press Democrat:
Change is good at Layla in Sonoma

Burrata and grilled asparagus with crispy prosciutto, peas and black truffle vinaigrette served with a drink called The Apiary made of gin, Yerba Mate tea, raw honey and lemon at Layla restaurant at MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa in Sonoma, Calif. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

“When Layla opened at the new MacArthur Place Hotel in Sonoma two years ago, I liked it. But I put some caveats in the review I wrote back then, noting that “this dining isn’t for everyone. Some of my dining companions have lamented the weirdness, and I’ve heard the same concern from other folks.”

That was because the contemporary Mediterranean cuisine often came with twists, like an Andalusian salmorejo soup that’s typically a puree of tomato, bread, oil and garlic, but here arrived with toasted pepitas, smoked olive oil and juicy confit grapes. Or there was a panzanella of big, ungainly chunks of tomato; a thick swath of kale pesto and bitter, blackened “charcoal” croutons. Sometimes, the unusual flavors simply didn’t work.

Yet now the hotel and restaurant have reopened after COVID-19 and financial rearrangement challenges and there’s a new chef/food and beverage director, a new menu and more approachable recipes. The idea is still contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, and while some of the successful original dishes remain, this upscale dining spot now offers something pleasing for everyone.

Chef Spencer Wolff has had a lengthy career in the Bay Area, including with the posh Huntington Hotel and The Big 4 Restaurant in San Francisco, the fancy Harvest Inn and Harvest Table in St. Helena and The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. So he’s right at home at this sophisticated Sonoma property, where we dine through breakfast, lunch and dinner in a luxury farm kitchen atmosphere of mocha and ivory, live trees amid the tables inside and large windows overlooking the dining deck and patio.

That outdoor area is gorgeous, too, lushly landscaped and set with an elegant white trellis, a water wall and clustered groups of cushy sofas. I just wish there was more light at dinner time — I had to use my phone flashlight to read the menu and to see the details of my plates. More light would have allowed me to better admire some of the very well-dressed canine guests that frequent the patio, such as a dapper pug dressed in a spiffy ski jacket.

Dinner service, as expected, is spot-on, including staff suggesting wine pairings guided by Wolff, who is a Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. That assistance led me to discover a delightful 2017 Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba from Alba, Italy ($21 for a glass) to go with my silky housemade gnocchi draped in veal Bolognese and Parmesan curls ($16) — the ripe cherry and vanilla notes have a touch of black pepper spice to bring out the hint of pepper heat in the chunky Bolognese.

A server’s recommendation also introduced me to the excellent kale Caesar ($15). I’m not usually a kale fan, since it’s frequently tough and bitter. But this kitchen works with tender baby leaves, shreds them for a delicate texture and coats them in a wonderfully briny anchovy dressing, then tops them with a large, paper-thin croutons and salty shaved Parmesan.

Meanwhile, a drizzle of black truffle vinaigrette adds that extra touch to an arrangement of burrata, grilled asparagus, sweet peas and wisps of crispy prosciutto ($17). And poppy seed vinaigrette made a crab salad sparkle, the generous dollops of Dungeness layered with orange segments, a thin crouton rectangle, petit greens and edible flowers ($28).

Lots of chefs are taking on labor-intensive porchetta lately. Perhaps they’re just happy to be able to show their skills after a year of preparing so much takeout. Layla’s version is among the best. It has the requisite crackly skin, fatty meat and sophisticated sides of confit baby fennel, super-sweet cara cara orange salad and spicy salsa verde ($32).

For drama alone, whole roasted sea bass is an interesting, if basic, option. The mild fish is served on a wooden board, dressed in garlic and lemon and paired with a bowl of roasted fingerling potatoes, fennel and pearl onion ($43). I started with a knife and fork, then went to work with my fingers around the dainty bones.

You’ll want to add whole roasted cauliflower ($13) as a side, because the vegetable is delicious, caramelized a deep bronze, crowned in sultana grapes and set on a pond of Meyer lemon yogurt that I ended up using to add more flavor to the fish dish.

Perhaps the oddest dish at the new Layla is the Basque cheesecake ($12). The round, burned-top, crustless confection is nearly a custard; it reminds me a crème brûlée with a cottage cheese texture. It’s appealing, just different, and served with vanilla macerated berries and citrus ($12).

I can’t remember the last time I saw poached pear on a dessert menu, but Layla’s version is worth trying ($12). Saturated in a cabernet sauvignon reduction and a bit of walnut oil, the fruit is still firm and thankfully not sweet. Instead, it’s imbued with smoky baking spices that make me think of chai tea and capped with a little beret of tangy mascarpone for extra punch.

Layla has always had potential to be a top Wine Country destination, and based on the full houses on my recent visits, it seems like the dining public agrees.

My one request, from the old days of 2019? Bring back the Parker House rolls. They were baked in a skillet in-house, brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with flaky sea salt, then served with indulgent chicken drippings plus a hint of sherry vinegar for drizzling. Yes, the drippings and vinegar were a weird twist, but a mouthwatering one.” – Carey Sweet, The Press Democrat

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