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.
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?
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.
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 jour and 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.
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