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The Valley is home to a wide range of exotic cuisines, with everything from Ethiopian to Afghan and Pakistani restaurants at the ready to feed wanna-be global gourmets. For a city our size, though, we've traditionally been pretty short on French food. We can recite the big players without breaking a sweat -- Christopher's, Sixth Avenue Bistrot, French Ambiance, Voltaire, Citrus, Le Sans Souci, Mary Elaine's, Bistro 24 and, with some Southwestern fusion tossed in, Vincent's.
But even if the Valley boasted French restaurants on every street corner, Sophie's would stand out. This new eatery, brought to us in November by longtime local caterer Serge Boukatch, is a gem in every opulent, expensive sense of the word.
The French-born Boukatch has owned A La Carte Catering Inc. in Phoenix for the past nine years, an enterprise he undertook after his previous employer, The French Corner restaurant, closed. While folks who've filled up at his events are more familiar with his Italian, Mexican and American buffets, Boukatch's true genius is in the classic cassoulet au confit de canard, coq au vin and jaret de veau sauce poivrade he now presents at Sophie's.
2320 E. Osborn Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
Crêpe du jour: $9.95
L'entrecôte de boeuf aux champignons: $23.95
Le carré d'agneau sauce Perigueux: $28.95
Crème caramel: $4.95
602-956-8897. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Brunch, Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Fancy names aside, the food at Sophie's is entirely approachable. Named after Boukatch's 3 1/2-year-old daughter, the petite bistro presents the casual, comfortable French fare on which Boukatch says his mother raised him. Diners who may be intimidated by the more ambitious Christopher's (frisee salad with lardons, roasted sweetbreads, mustard rabbit, veal cheeks) won't find anything requiring deciphering here. The most disquieting dish for an unschooled diner, in fact, is le poisson aux lardons sauce soubise. And this is simply because the poisson in question is monkfish, also known as anglerfish and rare to these parts. Here's the creepy part and a slight tangent from our tale: The angler takes its name from the method by which it lures its prey -- it lies partially buried on the sea floor and twitches a long filament that grows from its head. The filament resembles a worm and attracts smaller fish that are soon engulfed by the angler's huge mouth. The large, extremely ugly fish is also known as frogfish, sea devil and goosefish, but diners who don't ask will find it to be low-fat and firm-textured, with a mild, sweet flavor comparable to lobster. At Sophie's, the scary swimmer has been lightly sautéed with a dreamy leek and smoked bacon (lardon) cream sauce. Give it a try -- it's as pretty to eat as it is to hear Boukatch pronounce in his velvety French accent.
Sophie's space has a background almost as interesting as its monkfish. The charming little cottage with its hardwood floors and lace curtains used to be a balloon and party-planning company that for some reason included target practice in its back hallway. No bullet holes remain, covered by warm beige paint and a flurry of colorful framed prints on every available wall surface. Tables are double draped with white cloth, and if Boukatch didn't have my credit card number, I'd have run off with the clever napkin rings, thick pewter bands topped with a knife, fork and spoon.
Reservations are a must, and so is promptness. Sophie's doesn't seat until all members of a party are present. But waiting is made easier with a front-yard patio and a cozy lounge replete with a bar and baby grand piano (live music from Larry Reed Friday and Saturday nights). And keep in mind that Sophie's is not a good bet for secret meetings -- at lunch, the noise level can be quite obtrusive, not helped by periodic whirring and wheezing from appliances in the kitchen hidden by a wicker screen. No confidential documents will be exchanged, either -- the high server-to-guest ratio means constant vigilance.
Perhaps the attentiveness is part of the reason that the luncheon crowd at Sophie's doesn't seem particularly bothered by the plight of the working man/woman. Over several visits, it's largely a female audience, and one that's not shy about midday cocktailing. When was the last time you saw people slurping martinis and full bottles of wine at the noon hour? Why not, given that Boukatch has laid in an impressive wine list. At dinner, the blend of diners wanes unisex, and I'm proud to admit that I do my share of imbibing, unable to resist the siren call of Domaine de la Porte, a light, floral Sancerre that's even more beguiling for its entirely reasonable $36 a bottle price tag.
Regular folks wanting to eat at Sophie's would do well to have a job -- a well-paying one, at that -- or at least have a date who does. French food usually isn't for the faint of wallet, and Sophie's is right up there. Lunch for three, including one appetizer, a sandwich and side of fries, a salad, a chicken entree and one dessert, runs my group $90 (including tip).
I could quite easily make lunch for under $5 though, with an appetizer of les frittes à la Parisienne. In English, that means French fries, but in any language, it means died and gone to heaven. There's simply no way to stop nibbling on the lavish mound of crispy, skin-on shoestring potatoes, served as an embarrassment of riches in an oversize bowl. Who needs ketchup when we can dip with roasted tomato aïoli, buoyed by chunks of the fresh fruit?