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Canapés maison would do in a pre-paycheck pinch, too, with what equates to six mini-sandwiches and a sumptuous cacophony of flavors for $9.95. Canapés usually are restrained snacks, but these are indulgent. A twin set of thin, toasted slabs of baguette is heaped with fluffy goat cheese blended with herbs de Provence (thyme, rosemary, bay, basil, savory) and topped with caramelized sweet red onion. Another canapé is a salmon mousse so delicate and creamy it practically floats. A third topping supposedly contains chips of grilled chicken -- I don't find any, but I'm not looking that hard anyway, pleased as I am with an aggressive chop of French olives, red onions and capers. French olives, gathered before they're ripe, tend to mimic the gloriously bitter bite of Greek Kalamatas, and add a marvelous zing.
Le saumon fumé à ma façon is another delicious classic, nesting rosettes of silky cured and smoked Norwegian salmon with pungent capers, red onion, lemon and freshly grated hard-boiled egg presented with toasted baguette slices.
Ever since seeing Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk, I've had difficulty taking snails seriously. But Sophie's rendition is worth straightening up for -- coffret d'escargots sauce pastis are unadulterated pleasure, the snails fragrantly sautéed with shaved fennel and French pastis liquor, then finished with butter over golden puff pastry. Les escargots traditionnels, too, are fine specimens, a half-dozen Burgundy-style (meaning larger and meatier than average) gastropods broiled in a porcelain ramekin and bathed in aromatic herbed garlic butter. Sophie's crusty rolls, served sans bread plate and awkwardly torn apart on the tablecloth, are sufficient dippers, but French fries are better yet for juice sopping.
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.
Sophie's chef, Jerry Marette, trained in France and worked for a time at Mary Elaine's. The expertise shows in his broths, including soupe à l'oignon des halles, onion soup melding caramelized onions, garlic croutons and grated Gruyère cheese; and an often-appearing potage du jour of creamy garlic. It would be difficult to find a better bisque de homard, a vibrant blend of lobster broth, garlic cream and lobster meat gilded with a touch of sharp crème fraîche. Your server will tell you the dish is suitable for sharing, but don't believe her -- this stuff is too good to dole out.
Several luncheon entrees and all dinner entrees include salade maison, mesclun mixed greens drizzled with lush buttermilk thyme-Dijon dressing. Don't pass it up -- finishing the potpourri of small, young greens is a tasty way to get your daily vitamins. An exceptional salade niçoise is another healthful treat, massing greens with grilled-to-perfectly-medium tuna fillet with tomato, haricots vert (green beans), olives of Provence, onion and sliced hard-boiled egg. Before you request no anchovies, please, taste them first -- the salty fish are just the electric charge this mellow dish needs.
Salade de saumon grillé gets its kicks from lots of black pepper, too, the compact fillet splayed over mesclun greens with shaved fennel, roasted peppers and an interesting addition of singed sweet onion (essentially very lightly fried onion rings).
As the restaurant gets up to speed, Boukatch says he's working on a few more exotic daily specials -- yes, even sweetbreads and rabbit. For the time being, creativity comes in poisson ou fruit de mer à la discretion du chef (daily catch -- a huge hunk of pepper-rubbed seared tuna is outstanding), quiche du jourand crêpe du jour. For my money, the quiche is a little too dear -- one day's small slice dotted with osso bucco and paired with greens isn't ample enough to command $9.95.
Crêpes, the French word for "pancake," are properly light and paper-thin, but more filling at three per order. A day's selection of grilled chicken and asparagus sounds great; unfortunately the model I get is stuffed with chopped salmon and red pepper under béchamel sauce. Tasty, yes, but not what my taste buds were primed for, particularly when I've been drawn in by a previous visit's poulet sauté minute. Simple chicken breast is nicely moist, bathed in a heady sauce of roasted garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, herbs and Burgundy.
That famous French sandwich, croque monsieur, also suffers from some instability. I like the generous amount of smoked ham and Gruyère and the light hand with the crustless white bread. But depending on the whim of the kitchen, it seems, sometimes there's too little béchamel inside, and a stinting of broiled cheese on top. Picky, I know, but Sophie's dish is so good, I mourn when it's not absolutely perfect every time.
Nothing's lacking from l'entrecôte de boeuf aux champignons, however, a savory grilled New York steak embellished with a buttery ragout of wild mushrooms and paired with gratin potatoes, the thinly sliced red spuds blended with strong Gruyère. And le carré d'agneau sauce Perigueux nudges Vincent's at the Valley's best rack of lamb. For sheer value, nothing touches Sophie's enormous eight-bone presentation, the New Zealand Frenched gams touched up with a masterful pistachio sage crust and sauce Perigueux laced with garlic and black truffles.
Sophie's has crème brûlée, natch, but for a change of taste, sample crème caramel, a French vanilla custard that mimics flan. Spooned with fragrant, fresh-brewed coffee, it's a delicate end to a rich feast.
There may come a time when French restaurants are as ubiquitous in the Valley as Italian eateries. No matter the competition, though, Sophie's is choice.