Roll over, Beethoven: Sonata brings new life to old foods.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 2, 2010

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Hot chocolate: Chocolate Decadence exemplifies how well Sonata brings complexity and fun to common comfort dishes.

Photo by Michael Persico

Chicken isn’t supposed to be this exciting, and modern cooking techniques aren’t generally reputed to be this comforting. But the deceptively, straightforwardly named “pan-roasted, bacon-wrapped chicken” hit every note it should have, and even a few it generally wouldn’t.

This was no leathery Purdue breast—it was a wholly original take on the bird. Typically bland white breast meat was stuffed with a chicken-chestnut forcemeat (that’s from farce, French for “stuffing”—it’s meat that’s been finely ground up with other ingredients), wrapped in rolled-thin bacon, treated to a languorous hourlong sous vide bath followed by a quick bacon-crisping roast then plated with deliriously addictive Boursin potatoes: Fun, witty and technically accomplished chicken.

A restaurant with ambitions this high and the chops to achieve them typically flies far higher on the radar than Sonata. But despite a generally positive review here last year and a prime location on Liberties Walk, it’s still upsettingly easy to score a table. Chef-owner Mark Tropea says business has been picking up—hopefully it’ll continue to, because some truly remarkable food is being served in this understated dining room.

Rabbit and andouille sausage gumbo, a slick-top beauty, is remarkable for Tropea’s dexterity with a simple roux that lends the bowlful a glistening, ganache-brown appearance and a sense of elegance. The two green-onion hush puppies marooned in the center stake out a spot at the intersection of delicacy and exuberance.

Foie gras was just a touch overdone—the seared outer layer encapsulating the liver a hair too thick—but still charmed by virtue of its accompaniments. The standard balance-providing sweet components were present (black-currant preserves, in this case), but they were joined by an unexpected cashew crumble, the much-needed acid of a balsamic reduction and a brioche puree—essentially a sauce, Tropea pointed out, “that tastes like toast.”

Complex arugula and frisee salad, flecked with Shellbark Farm’s stellar goat cheese and crunchy pomegranate seeds, made excellent and intelligent use of persimmon, which had been cooked sous vide with cinnamon, compressed and draped in three-dimensional rectangles over the greens. The standout appetizer, however, was the pork belly, a geometric and densely compressed cut with a warm, perfectly crisped layer of fat on top. Tomato marmalade heady with smoked paprika echoed the warmth, toothy compressed apple brought a sense of seasonal heft and calvados molasses reiterated the theme—the elements working together embodied the musical give-and-take of the restaurant’s name.

Entrees continued in much the same successful vein, though the chicken was the unquestioned high point. Lobster “mac and cheese” succeeded in updating the old favorite, but a few details kept it from stealing the spotlight. The lobster tail itself was a velvety, highly persuasive argument for poaching everything you can find in butter. And the pasta, made in-house, was an appealing reminder of why slippery pappardelle is among the sexiest of noodles to eat. Only the slight grittiness of the fontina-cream sauce and the overwhelming fishy notes of the mushrooms scattered throughout kept it from really shining.

Duck confit cooked sous vide was a textural tour de force, though slightly too salty. Still, its perfectly calibrated salad—beets, gently spiced walnuts, pears and a subtle balsamic dressing—showed the confidence and maturity of this kitchen.

Short rib done sous vide, a remarkably vivid pink, retained more structure than any I’ve tasted in a long time. An accompanying celery-root puree, a subtle evocation of the autumn, stole the show—not an easy trick with a dish like this.

Desserts followed in the same witty, hyper-competent vein—Sonata’s sous and pastry chef, Krystal Weaver, is a serious talent. Pumpkin pie was re-imagined as a quasi-samosa, brown-spiced, burnt-umber puree encased in a flaky pie crust, a cloud-light dollop of Grand Marnier whipped cream hovering off to the side. “Chocolate decadence,” a fairly common name on dessert menus, actually lived up to its name. Midnight-brown beignets were a hint more bitter than sweet and wildly complex, their molten centers protected by a fried exterior. The elegant, shimmery chocolate was the star, and would have found itself just as at home in a Parisian patisserie case as here in Northern Liberties.

Sonata really excels at making these sort of comfort dishes unexpectedly challenging, and unexpectedly fun, too. The meal ends with a plateful of salted chocolate caramels that simultaneously call to mind Rolos, and a kitchen with serious vision. In other words, they're Sonata to a T.

1030 N. American St.,
Cuisine type: Modern, forward-thinking American BYOB.
Hours: Wed.-Thurs., 5-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm.
Price range: $6-$27.
Atmosphere: Music-themed minimalism.
Food: Well-developed flavors with a sense of wit and intelligence.
Service: Helpful and unobtrusive.

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