Raise the bar

Sonoma Soup and Salad owner Karen Celone offers up some salad bar veggies and toppings.

Sonoma Soup and Salad owner Karen Celone offers up some salad bar veggies and toppings.

Photo/Allison Young

Sonoma Soup & Salad is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Salads have been around since folks decided dinner could involve more than “grab thing, eat thing,” but a man in Wisconsin created the first “salad bar buffet,” circa 1950. I was surprised to learn this. I’d assumed salad bars sprung from “California Cuisine” in the ’70s. Who knew that cheeseheads love some greens with their brats?

Salad bars are traditionally sidekick to a larger dining experience. The original motivation was to keep diners busy while the main courses were prepared, freeing up servers for cocktail and dessert orders. Since then, salad bars have gone through many trends and changes, occasionally becoming the destination rather than side attraction.

Open for about a year, Sonoma Soup & Salad is a small-yet-roomy establishment that might be the only salad bar I’ve longed for after a single visit. My only disappointment is they’re only open for lunch. How do you maintain a restaurant for just four hours a day on soup and salad? A creative chef and fresh ingredients.

Start with a crisp, fresh selection of greens (iceberg, romaine, spring mix, baby spinach), then add a wide selection of veggies, fruits, meats, cheeses, nuts, and other tasty/crunchy toppings. Housemade dressings include great versions of the usual suspects, several oils and vinegars, hot sauces and spices, and sweeter fare (peach, blueberry, pineapple, poppy seed). I’d list every salad topping, but suffice it to say you’ll find something you like.

Yet, it’s the side salads that stand out. The rotelle pasta salad was delicate and wonderful. There was a mustard potato salad that was far better than average. And there was a vinegar rice pilaf, cactus pico de gallo, julienned mango and jicama tossed in a slightly-hot spice blend, mango salsa, and the most amazing coleslaw. Both plates and large bowls are available, with the option to either pay by weight ($8.25 per pound), or dine all-you-can-eat ($11.95) including soup and hot bar. To-go cartons are available if you like your salad portable.

The hot bar consisted of an acceptable fettuccine Alfredo with grilled and herbed chicken breast on the side. The homemade soups included tomato bisque, chicken rice, black bean, chicken tortilla, and clam chowder. All soups can be purchased individually by the cup ($3.50), bowl ($5.25), or in to-go cartons ranging from 8 to 32 ounce ($3.50-$8.75). I found the tomato bisque to be a bit more useful as a dipping sauce for the grilled chicken, tasty but not amazing by itself. The chicken tortilla was fabulous with great flavor and big pieces of veg and shredded chicken. My wife said the chicken rice was good, though the rice had swollen a bit in the broth, and somehow neither of us got to the black bean. All of these faded against the clam chowder.

Though made essentially in the style of classic “New England Clam Chowder,” its flavor was far from standard. Featuring a thinner broth than most chowders, the mix of flavors was complex and not entirely as clam-based as I’d expect. There were certainly plenty of clam pieces in the mix, but their essence was in competition with pepperoni and … carrot? Ultimately, we decided this wasn’t the best example of “clam chowder." However, give it a different name (Chowder Plus?) and it was one of the most flavorful and interesting soups I’ve tasted.

Beverages include coffee, tea, a no-name soda fountain, bottled soft drinks and beer, and a pretty good wine selection for a lunch-only venue. The service was simple and friendly, with a single chef keeping things stocked and a server/cashier who cheerfully answered all my questions. Go hungry, because once you start you won’t want to stop.