Goulash from Transylvania. Schnitzel from Germany. A Budapest meatball sub, and Hungarian chicken paprikash. It’s hard to believe we’re eating this in quaint downtown Sonoma.
Yet here, amid the endless wine boutiques and phalanxes of Cal-cuisine cafes, John and Heidi Cowles have just opened a restaurant called LoKal. It’s a concept they’re calling “European Soul Food,” and it’s some pretty unique cuisine for the North Bay.
Fearless? Perhaps. Flavorful? No question. The intrepid duo works with chef Rick Edge (formerly executive chef of Plumpjack Café) to serve up Old World recipes from John’s Hungarian mom.
It’s a new undertaking for the Cowles, who, for the last ten years, owned No B.S. Couriers in San Francisco. This is their first restaurant. Yet John said switching careers seemed a natural choice. He grew up with his mother, Eniko Matskassy Cowles, creating the recipes she took with her when she left her Hungarian hometown of Budapest in 1956.
Heidi has a German heritage, thus the combination of both Hungarian and German cuisines.
“LoKal translates in German to ‘pub’ or local spot to eat, be seen and have a drink,” John explains. “We tried to find a Hungarian word people could get their heads around, but due to the extremely unique Hungarian language, we decided LoKal would be more suited.”
Then, of course, there’s the more obvious “local,” with the Cowle’s relying on Northern California bounty. Neighborhood purveyors include
Vella Cheese, Basque Boulangerie, Three Twins Ice Cream, Caggiano sausages, Clover Stornetta Dairy, Sonoma Springs Brewing Company, Anderson Valley Brewing Company, and an array of area wineries.
Still, the heart of the restaurant beats for Hungary. Paprika, tarragon and other spices uniquely found only in Hungarian dishes are imported and applied with a generous hand.
The result is delicious. Laszlo’s Transylvanian Goulash ($14) arrives as a big bowl of stew-y love, brimming with slow-cooked beef, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage and onions. Chicken paprikash ($14) is so tender it can be cut with a sharp glance, swimming in a toothsome, savory mélange of Anaheim peppers, tomatoes, carrots and sour cream gravy, dolloped with more sour cream and sopped up with huge, doughy dumplings.
Then there’s chicken schnitzel ($16), in a portion fit for a lumberjack. A slab of breast meat is pan-fried golden brown, then splayed over tender cooked red cabbage alongside a mound of homemade spaetzle. The chicken stays moist, while the cabbage and spaetzle add a pleasing bit of tang and texture.
More schnitzel stars in an inventive take on a Reuben ($12), the sandwich stuffed with juicy pan-fried pork loin, crunchy housemade pickles and fresh sauerkraut. The thick bread is toasted with plenty of butter, and the plate is piled with a bright salad of Little Gem lettuce and roasted beets in a tart herb vinaigrette.
In a refreshing twist, there’s no shtick here. No oom-pah-pah music, but contemporary tunes spun on real records from a stereo behind the bar. No schmaltzy travel posters, but a stylish décor of natural wood accents, flagstone floors, and a cozy patio out back set with weathered wood picnic tables.
It’s easy to linger, working your way through a satisfying stuffed cabbage ($12) that’s plump with wild rice, mushrooms and lentils ladled in lecsó, a thick ragout of peppers, tomato and paprika. Your server will bring you another beer, perhaps a German brew like Spaten Lager, as a frosty pint ($5). Or you can save her the trip by ordering your suds in a clever, 2-liter glass boot ($24).
To finish, it may be difficult to find belly space for dessert, but Ella's almond cake ($6) is worth the effort. As with most of LoKal’s recipes, it's a simple arrangement - eggs, almond paste, flour, sugar – yet the dense confection tastes like home, served warm and topped with rhubarb cooked down to a chutney, sweetened with a touch of honey and capped in billows of fresh whipped cream.
Is Sonoma ready for such unexpected soul food? From the increasing crowds converging on the small eatery, it appears so. On a recent Friday lunch, LoKal was overrun with so many customers that John had to race out and restock his kitchen before dinner.
He took it in stride, and smiled. “Being a new restaurateur is hard,” he said. “But it’s not as hard as being a Hungarian.”
Details: LoKal, 522 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-938-7373, lokalsonoma.com.
Tip: Feeling like a nap after a European comfort food feast? Sleep it off in style, with a ride home in a Pure Luxury limo.