Dressed-up burger bars, refined craft pizza parlors, and white-tablecloth steakhouses have become the totemic features of Scottsdale dining in recent years. But if you would rather chew on your cloth napkin than indulge another fancy burger or pizza or filet mignon, you will probably welcome Sonata's Restaurant as a breath of fresh air.
Sonata's may be one of the most ambitious new restaurants to debut in Scottsdale this season, offering a sprawling menu of European-inspired dishes, culled in part from Lithuanian-born owner Sonata Molocajeviene Tuft's own private trove of Old World family recipes. The executive chef here is Josh Bracher, a graduate of the Arizona Culinary Institute, previously of Second Story Liquor Bar and Tanzy, who seems to relish in dressing up Eastern European staples like borscht and cabbage rolls, plus a smattering of other classic European dishes.
The restaurant is situated in a quiet strip mall near the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Gold Dust Avenue, obscured from street view by the brassy, sprawling exterior of a California Pizza Kitchen restaurant.
Past the faint scent of thin-crust pizza, though, Sonata's occupies a large corner strip mall space, at night beckoning like a sort of glittering mirage. The restaurant is refined and self-referentially grand — a portrait of the owner graces the main dining room — but also undeniably inviting. Much of the design credit goes to Sonata Molocajeviene Tuft's son and resident "chief operating officer" Deividas Molocajevas, who has created a space where small crystal chandeliers cast a soft nostalgic glow over the bar, Sinatra croons over the speakers, and pretty much every seat in the house is tufted and plush. The spacious outdoor patio, with canary yellow tufted booths and a flickering fire pit, rivals the comfortable airs of the grand-statement resorts just up the road.
Along with the regular lunch and dinner menu, Sonata's offers an abbreviated late-night menu on the weekends, a crepe-centric brunch menu with a full Bloody Mary and mimosa bar on Saturdays and Sundays, and a fresh juice bar geared toward health-minded grab-and-go diners.
Standouts from the drink menu include a small but interesting selection of Lithuanian bottled beers, plus a signature cocktail menu heavy on vodka-based concoctions like the Prickly Peach, a peachy Ciroc blended with prickly pear jelly, and just enough brut to give the sweet-tart drink some sparkle. It comes with an edible flower floating on the surface of the drink, and already promises to become the favored pink drink of choice for romantic cocktail drinkers north of Old Town.
Probably the most essential starter at Sonata's is an order of the kepta duona, a classic Lithuanian bar snack consisting of dark rye bread, sliced into neat, finger-length strips that are rubbed in garlic and salt, then fried to a crisp finish. Here, the kepta duona have been dressed-up a bit, tossed and fried in a duck fat aioli, and draped in glossy layers of melted Havarti cheese. They come stacked neatly inside a small cast-iron pan like Lincoln Logs, and they are very, very good. Every bite resonates with crunch, and the extra-rich dousing of duck fat and herbs is more than worth a swoon or two. Throw back a couple of these and the other minute details of your life (your cholesterol levels, for instance) are to be easily forgotten.
Cabbage rolls, another starter, are richly flavored with braised beef and pork, but come off a bit clunky. The delicate rolls are buried under pomodoro sauce, although a helping of salty bryndza sheep's milk cheese and smetana, a sort of Eastern European crème fraîche, help cut through the acidity of the sauce. In the end, everything sort of melts together, approximating the saucy, savory, and hearty richness of something like lasagna.
Short rib stroganoff, a dinner entree recommended by the dinner staff on a recent night, is worlds apart from the Betty Crocker comfort food dish that many of us grew up with. The smoked short rib, generously portioned, is slinky, tender and nicely seasoned, and it's topped with a rich, creamy puddle of smetana. The beef is scented and deepened with the flavor of wild mushrooms. The dish is paired with your choice of Boursin potatoes or house-made pappardelle egg noodles. It's hard to resist the call of freshly-made pasta, though, and the one here is slippery and eggy in all the right ways.
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Dutch oven crab-stuffed cod, another dinner entree, is not quite as nicely balanced — the cod is served in a pan loaded down again with too much pomodoro sauce, its acidity amplified with a sprinkling of capers and olives. But the cod itself is beautifully seared and seasoned, and topped with a dappling of aromatic crab meat and microgreens.
Sonata's may not be your next destination for pizza or burgers — or even steaks — but it promises something much more interesting and well-crafted. And maybe that's precisely what Scottsdale needs right about now.