January 29, 2013


My list of "need to try" restaurants has been a little stagnant recently- many of the long time contenders are either 1) too expensive for a regular night out, 2) impossible to get a reservation (I'm looking at you, Vedge), 3) better suited for large groups, or 4) just don't call to me the same way they once did.  I'd also like to throw it out there that it's sometimes tough to choose a new-to-the-blog restaurant when there are lots of places I'd like to revisit (I know, my life is so hard).  In choosing a spot to eat with a friend recently, I suggested Sophia's- even though it's received almost no publicity, it's operated under a reputable chef, it's in one of my favorite neighborhoods, and the price points aren't an immediate turn-off.

It's located on a popular stretch of East Passyunk, down the block from Cantina Los Caballitos.  I had to look up the exact address twice to help us find it-- it's not well marked.  The building is laid out just as a brownstone home would be, long and narrow with a basement and stairs leading to an upper floor. The small dining room in the back of the first floor was small and quiet with room for just six or so tables.

The menu was really a surprise- I find it necessary to check out menus online before going to eat, but Sophia's barely has a web presence.  A small serving of soft sliced baguette began our meal as we decided what to eat.

Thankfully, everything looked great, and we settled on two appetizers to split.  First, the "Sophia's Meatballs" (yes, they're in quotes), two enormous meat mountains which we decided were mostly beef ($7).  An incredible creamy polenta and a soulful red gravy were the stars of the dish, with intense but comforting flavors from both.  The meat itself was soft and well-cooked but was underseasoned, leaving it to pale in comparison to the other components of the dish.

We also picked our waitress' brain on a second appetizer, and while she stood loyal to her employers insisting every dish was stellar, she helped us decide on the Pastrami Spiced Pork Belly ($11).  Definitely the (savory) highlight of my meal, the dish was a deconstructed rendition of a reuben sandwich- one of my favorites.  Soft shredded cabbage coated in a warm Russian dressing was topped with squares of smoked-and-seared pork belly.  The meat wasn't overly fatty as belly tends to be, and the charred edges mixed with the pastrami spices and the tender meat was a perfect combination.

After two great appetizers, we were hit with one of our most common restaurant complaints: the  smaller plates far outshine the entrees.  While we both appreciated the quality ingredients and careful preparation of our respective meals, they both failed to meet the expectations set by our first course.  I chose the Wild Striped Bass ($25).  Served in an exceptionally bright green sauce, from first glance I thought it would be full of fresh herbs- a great pairing for a solid piece of fish, in my opinion.  However, the broth was thin and much more dull than it appeared; while the bass was well cooked with a thin crispy edge, the sauce was too subtle for the already light dish.  Two little neck clams and a few braised baby turnips completed the dish. (Note: the folks at Philly-ism had nothing but praise for this dish, so either I am missing taste buds or there are some inconsistencies).

My friend's Proscuitto Wrapped Pork Tenderloin fared a bit better, although with such a solid pairing of ingredients, it should have been a real wow-er.  The pork was cooked to a lovely medium (a preparation not fully appreciated by germophobic Americans), and was perched atop a giant heap of kale.  

Perfectly prepared cranberry beans (soft but with just a bit of a bite) were served in a warm gravy with softened Mission figs and a balsamic reduction.  A solid dish, but not as fun and flavorful as the pork belly.

At this point I was definitely full, but I'd heard rumors about the desserts at Sophia's that I only hoped were true.  And, yes! At the bottom of the dessert menu reads the magic words: Desserts from Belle Cakery, Pastry Chef Jessie Prawlucki.  I've been wanting to get to Belle Cakery since it's opening, and this was a great chance to try her creations in the context of a real meal.

Unfortunately the menu is fairly limited, and my dislike for cinnamon and my disinterest in "rum pineapple" anything left me with an obvious last choice: the Dark Chocolate Cheesecake ($7).  Great excuse to try the most decadent item on the menu, right?  It was a phenomenal choice, and had my opinion of Sophia's back on very solid ground.  A dark chocolate cookie crust (my favorite part!), a dense cool block of chocolate-y sweet cream cheese, a perfect dark chocolate ganache top, and a beautifully caramelized banana confit.  It was impossible to finish- it would have been perfect to split amongst two or three, but I had this all to myself.

While significantly less exciting to look at, the homemade ice creams rivaled the cheesecake in flavor ($4).  A simple vanilla bean was one of the best vanilla ice creams I've ever tasted-- you could tell it had a huge percent of milk fat, just the way it should be.  The strawberry was bursting with summer fruit (thank you, Florida, for supplying great berries in a month in which we've hardly seen temperatures in the 30s!), with a bit less richness than the plain vanilla.

Sophia's is smart to take advantage of a nearby pastry expert, ensuring that your final bites at this restaurant will leave you nothing but happy.  The small menu at Sophia's sticks mostly to safe comfort foods, and with such limited options, we'd either like to see 1) some more exciting additions (like the pork belly!) OR 2) hitting home runs with the safer dishes.  I can definitely see a return visit in the future- I'd like to give it a few months to let the kitchen settle into a rhythm, but I think it will be a great addition in an already stellar food neighborhood.

1623 E. Passyunk Avenue

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