The marvelous painting by John Collins that hangs on the wall opposite the entrance to Luma in the riverfront warehouse district of Petaluma sums up a lot about the place. It’s smart and sophisticated, its colors carefully chosen and harmonic, and it’s painted with a deft but free hand.
The same things can be said about the food coming from chef Jen Solomon’s kitchen.
Luma was conceived by owners Tim and Demi Winter as a neighborhood restaurant with a modern twist on American cooking, beckoning locals with a big neon sign that hangs above the corner of G and First streets. It’s only been open for three and a half months, but word is getting around.
Since America is such a melting pot of cultures, all sorts of influences push their way into the dishes offered on the regular menu and the specials created each night. But these intrusions aren’t awkward — in fact, they’re often brilliant.
For instance, what’s more American than a bowl of cream of tomato soup? Didn’t we all grow up with the Campbell kids? Didn’t Andy Warhol immortalize a can of the stuff?
OK, Luma takes this basic soup and adds an Asian touch of freshly grated ginger to make its Tomato-Ginger Bisque ($6.50, 4 stars). Who knew tomatoes and ginger could fall into such a rapturous embrace? The tomatoes lend a sweet, tangy note; cream adds velvety smoothness; and the flavor of ginger partners with both while it adds a pungency to the finish.
There’s a wood-fired oven where a Baked Pear ($8, 3 stars) was roasted and covered with a port glaze, then stuffed with blue cheese, chewy dried cherries and crunchy walnuts. It’s served with a small baby spinach salad and a slice of whole grain toast: sweet and lovely and appealing to all palates. That same oven is used to bake pizzas and calzones.
Among the six pizzas on the printed menu and one nightly special (recently meatballs, eggplant, and house-made ricotta for $14), was one called Satan’s Kiss ($15, 3½ stars). One would expect a terrific spicy bite from this pizza, but no. The perfect crust was topped with a delicate tomato sauce, house-made ricotta, house-made Italian fennel sausage, mozzarella, roasted peppers and leeks. Perhaps the little tips of the ricotta points, blackened from the oven’s heat, is the satanic reference, rather than any spicy heat. The pizza was wonderfully elegant.
Little touches are nice. As you sit down, you notice there’s a tall glass with several long grissini — pencil-slim, crunchy Italian breadsticks. A chalkboard lists the specials. Music is eclectic, from Dean Martin to Nick Drake to The Band. Tables are plain, with just tea lights, salt and pepper, but the napkins are cloth. In the open kitchen you can see the cooks hard at work.
The wine list is worth a note. The prices are between $25 and $50 for wines that range from local favorites to Slovenian Furmint, Greek Moscofilero, Sardinian Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc from the beautiful Casablanca Valley in Chile, Torrontes from Mendoza in Argentina, a Grenache-Syrah-Carignan blend from Chapoutier in the south of France, Austrian Blaufrankisch, Spanish Priorat and a blend of Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Corkage is $15.
If American cooking has any prominent progenitor, it must be Italian cuisine, and Luma pays homage to that country in many of its dishes. The Antipasto Plate ($10 small, $16 large, 3½ stars) is a wonderland of delicious tidbits: house-made ricotta with crunchy salt crystals and fresh ground pepper, a crouton with olive tapenade, caponata, fried mortadella cubes, prosciutto, salame, curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano stricken from a block of hard cheese, fresh pear slices, cured green olives, a shaved fennel salad with mandarin orange segments and oil-cured black olives, and a basket of bread slices.
The kitchen has achieved perfection in a meatball. Luma Meatballs ($8, 4 stars) are revelatory. Two sit in a bowl of sugo, with its tomato essence reduced to pure succulence. They’re so tender they seem to melt in the mouth, but a background spiciness prevents your taste buds from getting sleepy.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta ($5.75, 2 stars) put an end to my swooning. The disassembled sprouts were burnt on their edges and unpleasantly bitter. But a slow-building sharp pungency set the mouth aglow and rescued the dish from total failure.
The kitchen rebounded with a steaming bowl of Linguini with Chicken and Gorgonzola ($16, 3½ stars), a tummy-warming dish of juicy, all-dark-meat chicken and a creamy (no tomatoes) gorgonzola sauce with flecks of that excellent house-made ricotta dotting the top.
There are a lot of folks of Italian descent in Argentina, which explains the Skirt Steak ($18, 3 stars) served over Tuscan cannellini beans with the Argentinian national sauce, chimichurri — typically a mix of olive oil, vinegar, parsley, oregano, garlic, cayenne and black pepper, which the Argentines pour liberally on their world-class beef.
Desserts were another matter. Bread Pudding ($7, 1½ stars) was soggy and dense, infused with a port-caramel sauce that made no culinary sense. Apple Galette ($7, 2 stars) wasn’t that much better, with a dry, crumbly crust and a sparse filling of thin apple slices.
To sum up: A warm, cozy, really good restaurant announces Petaluma’s warehouse district as a place for folks to gather and gloat over their gastronomic good fortune.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at email@example.com.