Eastern European restaurants have always been few and far between in Phoenix. Our infernal climate offers one possible explanation: Borscht and beef stroganoff may be blissfully belly-warming in the Baltic, but they aren’t the dishes that come to mind here at home when summer temperatures soar well past 100 degrees and stay there for what seems an eternity. Meanwhile, our mild winters are effectively over by Groundhog Day, a scenario that’s not exactly conducive to crushing platters of pierogi on a weekly basis.
I hope I’m talking out of my hat here, because as a lover of all things rich and fattening, I’m pretty excited about Sonata’s, a new Eastern European restaurant in North Scottsdale, owned and operated by Lithuanian-born Sonata Molocajeviene Tuft and family. And given the memorable meals I’ve recently eaten there, I’m counting on many return visits – not only this winter, but for years to come.
Now, if you’re imagining an ethnic hole in the wall with a sweet little kerchiefed babushka in the kitchen, you’ll want to disabuse yourself of that stereotype posthaste. Sonata is an attractive redhead, and her restaurant, designed by her son Deividas, is every bit as glamorous as she is. Furnished with crystal chandeliers, tufted yellow banquettes, a beautifully backlit bar and textural elements of wood and metal, it’s a room that recalls the elegance of old-fashioned fine dining. On weekdays, the restaurant is blessedly quiet, and the background music swings between the 1950s and 1960s. On weekend nights, the place is packed with what I surmise are expats (based on their accents) and the decibel level, owing in part to a blonde chanteuse covering Rihanna and The Beatles at the keyboard, matches that of any other high-ceiling, hard-surface dining room in town.
Like the décor, the menu has an elevated quality, thanks to executive chef Josh Bracher (Posh, Second Story Liquor Bar), who extensively researched Lithuanian cuisine – and its tango of tart-savory flavor combinations – before taking Sonata’s arsenal of family recipes and putting his modern American spin on them. His elegantly presented comfort food puts meat front and center, while workhorse sides such as sauerkraut and spätzle (hearty German egg noodles) – traditionally given more real estate on the plate – become little more than delicious accents. Meanwhile, pretty bowls and fancy platters reinforce the fine dining theme.
Admittedly, kepta duona, a Lithuanian bar snack that makes great accompaniment to Sonata’s extensive beer selection, is more downscale than up, but they’re utterly addictive bites of fun. Garlicky planks of dense Lithuanian rye bread are fried in duck fat until crisp, then smothered in a creamy Havarti sauce enriched with mayonnaise and neatly stacked like a mini log cabin. On one visit, they’re insanely good; on a busier night, they’re thrown helter-skelter on the plate without the abundance of gooey cheese that makes them exceptional. An old-school starter of tangy pickled herring, accompanied by potato salad, pickled red onion and sour cream, is first-rate, and I can’t think of a single other restaurant in town that pickles its herring in house.
Lacy-edged potato pancakes, also offered as a small plate, come topped with slivers of silky house-smoked salmon and a dab of smetana (a sour cream akin to crème fraiche). They’re especially good swished with ljutenica, a spicy-sweet vegetable chutney offered as a condiment at Sonata’s. Meanwhile, a lusty soup of porcini mushrooms and barley, redolent with garlic, is the sort of warming comfort food I’ll be jonesing for on our next rainy day. Served with a green onion and a slice of lightly toasted rye bread, it’s down-home delicious.
Oddly enough, vivid borscht – chunky with beets and garnished with a too-tiny dab of smetana – contains mini meatballs instead of the traditional choice bits of ham pulled from a slowly simmered hock. My Polish pal and I lament the substitution but we can’t find a thing wrong (only a lot right) with Ruskie pierogi: piping hot, plump dumplings filled with potato, farmer’s cheese and caramelized onions, then glazed with sherry and strewn with a luscious mixture of celery root purée, melted leeks and mushrooms. I’d happily eat them in August.
Although I love the creamy richness of cabbage rolls bathed in Pomodoro sauce, sprinkled with sharp sheep’s milk cheese and spooned with ubiquitous smetana, the peasant in me longs for a looser, more cabbage-focused preparation than this one, which tastes like an Italian meatball that rolled its way into a cabbage leaf.
Entrées, generously portioned and exceptionally good, will make you wonder if you’ve been price-gouged at other high-end restaurants. Roasted half duck, accompanied by caramelized potatoes, sauerkraut, celery root purée and tart-sweet elderberry sauce, is a perfectly conceived winter dish, as is oxtail stew, an earthy, deeply flavored brew brimming with succulent meat, peewee potatoes, white beans, celery, onion, root vegetables, eggplant, mushrooms, peas and fennel.
Braised red cabbage, poppy seed spätzle and a fermented purée derived from kohlrabi (a mild, turnip-like vegetable) form a savory-sweet bed for crisp-edged, ultra-fatty smoked pork belly confit. Meanwhile, smoked beef short rib stroganoff, served over house-made pappardelle egg noodles with a generous scatter of wild mushrooms, green onion and smetana, reminds us why this dish was so beloved when it was all the rage 40 years ago. It’s cathartic.
Roasted lamb, on the other hand, presented on a nest of smoking hay, is about as trendy as you can get. Although it’s not the restaurant’s prettiest plate (lamb, kasha grains, mushrooms – all brown), the hint of smoke and garlicky jolt provided by persillade, an herb mixture similar to chimichurri, make this another worthwhile dish.
After all the memorable dishes thus far, desserts are a bit disappointing – particularly a doughy, unexceptional Napoleon ($6) and a collection of slightly undercooked and crispy sweet cheese pierogi, plated with macerated berries, hazelnut-chocolate whipped cream and caramel sauce ($6). Chantilly cream-dotted crêpes Suzette, strewn with toasted almonds and drizzled with syrupy Grand Marnier sauce, are easily the best of the lot ($8).
Sonata’s is still new enough to have service and timing issues, and there’s no denying the food is better when the restaurant isn’t busy. But I’m rooting for this place in a big way simply for bringing something we’ve long lacked – a sophisticated restaurant of Slavic extraction – to the proverbial table.
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