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Layla transcends the hotel restaurant

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Starting Out Right Newcomer Layla offers hotel guests and locals a fresh take on Mediterranean cuisine, as exemplified by the excellent charred octopus starter.
  • Starting Out Right Newcomer Layla offers hotel guests and locals a fresh take on Mediterranean cuisine, as exemplified by the excellent charred octopus starter.

Not to over-generalize, but resort food tends to be plentiful, yet lacking in creativity, thoughtful sourcing of ingredients and memorable culinary moments," says Cole Dickinson, executive chef of Layla, the latest addition to the recently refurbished MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa in Sonoma.

This is decidedly not the direction Dickinson took after joining the hotel to oversee all culinary operations after stints at Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen, The Bazaar by Jose Andres in Los Angeles and Acacia House at the Las Alcobas Resort in Napa. Occupying a spacious, rustic room at the property's main building, Layla is the sit-down option among the hotel's offerings, alongside a casual grab-and-go cafe and a lounge serving cocktails and bar food.

Layla, from the sand dune-like menu design to the wicker touches in the dining room, is a Mediterranean restaurant, which hasn't been common among Sonoma or Napa as far as hotel eateries go. Why not? Dickinson isn't sure.

"I tend to draw inspiration from my surroundings, cooking with seasonal ingredients grown locally," he says. "Sonoma has a Mediterranean climate with hot, arid summers and wet winters, so we have a bounty of local agricultural produce—grapes, of course, as well as olives, fresh legumes and vegetables—that mirrors the best from the Mediterranean region."

The menu at Layla isn't afraid of summoning ingredients from all corners of the region, from the mainstream to the more obscure. In the shared plates section, the octopus ($21), the roasted carrots ($10) and the baba ganoush ($9) deliver an enjoyable start, turning the tired "share everything" directive into something you'd actually want to do. The charred octopus slices come with a tangy romesco sauce and perfectly cooked confit potatoes. The carrots, sprinkled with slightly sweet pine nut granola, are memorable among the common sight of roasted carrots. The best dish out of the three is the unorthodox baba ganoush, made from zucchini instead of the traditional eggplant. Flavored with zaatar and dotted with walnuts, pureed black garlic and addictive pickled raisins, the spread packed enough freshness and nuance.

What came after didn't disappoint either. The textures in the local greens salad ($12) kept things interesting with raw and pickled asparagus making an appearance. The Israeli couscous was another surprise; known in Israel as children's comfort food and normally served with simple tomato sauce, the small, pearly pasta "grains" were instead cooked in shellfish broth and butter, and served with bites of lobster, making for a complex, very adult main course. Similar outside-of-the-box thinking was present at the chicken agrodolce ($29), an inventive and good-looking dish doing the trendy "both ways" trick; crisped chicken breast with toasted shallots on one side of the plate, a bold, delicious savoy cabbage roll stuffed with minced chicken on the other, with a rich egg yolk custard to cut through the sweet and sour notes. The halibut ($32) kept it simpler, expertly cooked and resting on a bed of pickled peppers, chickpeas and tomato sauce liberally called "shakshuka" on the menu, despite the lack of eggs. A refreshing pate de bombe ($10); greek yogurt mousse, rhubarb and coconut sorbet, was just the light, barely sweet finish the meal needed.

Layla is an ambitious take on the something-for-everyone hotel restaurant. Standing out in the local landscape, Layla's creative menu is worth the drive, from Sonoma's downtown or beyond.

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