Love, Minnesotan Style
65 S.E. Main St., Mpls.; 379-1111
Romance is a tricky beast. If it's too conventional--Hallmark valentines, half of Stillwater-- it feels cheap and empty. If it's too unconventional--that heart-shaped tomato presented under your favorite I-35 overpass--it can seem clueless, pathetic, and uncommunicative. Worst of all it can't be ignored: Banish romance from your life and you turn your relationship into a slowly decaying automaton. So let me correct myself: Romance isn't just tricky, it's downright perilous.
Which is why we're so glad to have places like Sophia. It's one of the few spots in town where you can enjoy a panorama of Minneapolis's gorgeous skyline in every season--I especially like it on fall afternoons when the sunlight makes brilliant golden pyres of the trees along the river, when the rain splashes on the bricks, or when late autumn precipitation makes the skyline look like a giant snowdome. (An attached garage with free parking keeps really funky weather at a properly romantic distance.) Add live music--piano Tuesdays through Saturdays, and jazz crooners such as Arnie Fogel and Dennis Spears on weekends--and it's a potent site for love.
Sophia's bar is a beautiful art-deco stretch of polished wood, golden light, and elegant murals, and it provides drinks that are surprisingly reasonable. The newly revamped wine list offers more mid-price bottles than the former one, and many of the white wines--such as the light Riesling from Washington's Chateau St. Michelle ($20)--come in a silvery ice bucket. Perhaps the best thing to order is champagne, for the list features a variety of champagnes and sparkling wines, ranging from Dom Perignon ($135) to Mumm's Cuvee Napa ($25). The red-wines list is heavy on domestics and has a number of dull spots--like the Glen Ellen Merlot ($26)--but I like La Crema's lush, oaky Pinot Noir ($39) or Montevina's spicy Zinfandel ($28). Be sure to request the wine list: At lunches it isn't provided and all the good wines by-the-glass are in it, as everything on the regular menu is from the unexciting Monterey Vineyards. Top-shelf highballs are only $3.95, and fancy cocktails like a Sidecar ($4.75) or a Cosmopolitan ($3.45) make even wallflowers look like starlets. One of the most charming things about Sophia is how accessible it is; glittering trophy wives and fragrance-free Ph.D. candidates sit side by side in a space so ample and flexible that I've never seen customers turned away.
Sadly, as with any romance, Sophia has its sobering realities, and here they've all got to do with the chef, or lack thereof. The menu is a road to be navigated carefully; modest successes and real disappointments lie side by side. My favorite appetizer was the grilled quail in a green-pumpkin sauce ($7). The quail is tender and perfectly cooked, though the hefty pool of sauce it arrives in is not as nutty and smoky as it should be, but merely raw and acrid, which comes of not toasting the seeds. The gravlax ($7) is good, properly fresh, sweet, and salty, though marred by a dry coating of powdered dill. The eggplant salad ($6) is dire--simply slices of underseasoned lemon-pickled eggplant and unripe tomatoes.
You'll be happiest with entrées when you keep it simple. I liked the sweet, garlic-laced Shrimp Sophia on linguini ($17) best; and the steaks--like the New York Strip ($19) or the filet mignon ($18)--are mildly seasoned and flavorful, and come, as does nearly every entrée, with a fresh and tasty vegetable melange. Inexplicably, the excellent hand-mashed potatoes, which come with the lunch hamburger (served French style, without a bun), are replaced on dinner plates with a bland au gratin. The sage-rubbed lamb chops ($18) on my visit were fatty and undistinguished, and the seafood paella ($16) was a mess: one shrimp, three scallops, and a handful of fish pieces tossed in a bone-dry, toast-bland pile of rice. But other good bets include the Caesar salad ($5) and the Pizza Margherita ($9), though be sure you specify no onions--another inexplicable side serving--on the latter dish.
All in all, Sophia would be better off paring down the menu and letting some young Turk of a chef make his mark. But even with the spotty food offerings, Sophia is worth the visit: for the romance, for the music, for the coffee (served hot and fresh from an elegant silver pot), and for the wonderful desserts (all priced at $4.50).
In fact, when the coffee is paired with desserts like Sophia's silky, liqueur-touched, hauntingly delicious chocolate mousse, the results are blissful. The crème brûlée is another triumph: lusciously creamy, perfectly set, an exquisite moment in custard. The lime tart in raspberry sauce was splendid, the tart spritely and sour, nicely complemented by the sweet, fresh puree of berries. The flourless chocolate cake, which in so many hands turns thick and dull, was moist and robust, and was neatly contrasted by a light vanilla sauce. Even the glass of fresh strawberries topped with a frothy sabayonne sauce seemed decadent in this evocative setting, especially when nibbled between spins on the dance floor.
The composite effects of wine, jazz, and Sophia's unfussy elegance are intoxicating. Factor in the moon over the Mississippi, the sounds of Cole Porter, and applause spilling out into the night, and it's easy to remember why romance, tricky and idiosyncratic as it may be, is one of the finest of adult pleasures.
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