In a city where some people track the comings and goings of chefs as obsessively as others do center fielders, nothing stirs more hope than the prospect of reeling in The One That Got Away. For Philadelphia, Christopher Lee must be at the top of that list. The alumnus of New York’s Oceana, Jean Georges and Daniel really made his name at Striped Bass, on Walnut Street, where in the mid-2000s he won a James Beard Rising Chef award and just about every other accolade you can think of. Then, after a couple years, he went back to Manhattan. So news of his return was the foodie talk of the winter. It looked like East Passyunk Avenue, which just keeps getting better, would soon get better still.
But talk has a drawback: It doesn’t stir the saucepots. And neither does Christopher Lee—at least not often at Sophia’s, which opened in January. Lee lives in Long Island City, has a pub in Huntington, does consulting on the side, and commutes to Philly a couple days a week to check in on the kitchen but rarely actually cooks in it. “If someone calls in sick, I’ll jump on the line,” he told me over the phone from his car, but otherwise he plays a supervisory role while mulling whether to open his next restaurant in New York, Philly or Washington, D.C.
So that’s one important thing to know about Sophia’s.
Another is that you can get just about any sort of food you could possibly think of here—ravioli, sliders, tuna sashimi tacos, paella—but there’s no telling in what order these offerings might arrive. My first dinner proceeded like a bizarre palindrome: entrée, entrée, appetizer, appetizer, a Caesar salad smack in the middle, then (in a porcelain avalanche) another appetizer-and-entrée pair. I’ve heard the “dishes come out as they’re ready” song before—lots of places these days value the kitchen’s convenience over yours—but this was the first rendition that made me wonder if a crème brûlée might actually knuckleball its way in between seared scallops and Spanish fries.
The restaurant attempts to provide cover for this randomness with a menu split between “bites,” “salads and sides,” and two sections of what are being called “larger plates”—defined by one of my servers, somewhat comically, as “larger than small plates.” (Yet perhaps smaller than large plates; when pressed, she eventually admitted that most people would just consider them “entrées.”) Whatever you call them and however you share them, that’s a lot of mismatched dishes to pitch into the same dinner. But hold onto your helmets, sports fans, because here comes the spitball: “cheesesteak soup dumplings.”
It was the first item on the menu, and the last words I should’ve dared to utter within 10 feet of a server’s earshot. Cupped in the dimples of an escargot dish, half a dozen short-rib-and-onion-broth dumplings bore a lattice of parmesan, crisped with a blast of heat that hardened the crowns of my unfortunate dumplings themselves. These were a gimmick twice over, as mine doubled as a dead ringer for soggy-bottomed nachos.
There are two schools of thought about restaurant ordering. One deems it unwise to order things that sound disgusting. The other advocates the exact opposite: If something sounds weird or ill-advised, it’s gotta exceed expectations. The former philosophy will serve you best at Sophia’s. The latter will only enrage.
And for some folks who walk into the intimate barroom in this charming old rowhouse, or dine in the unaffectedly atmospheric second-floor dining room, that and the moderate pricing may be sufficient. Chef de cuisine Oris Jeffers turned out some enjoyable dishes in my visits. A wine-braised lamb shank was as simple and honest as Sunday family supper, and it soothed the soul just as ably. Apple-and-chestnut ravioli were delicate and velvety, with a sweetness that really sang in the presence of cracked pepper.
There were also a couple more idiosyncratic winners. Pistachio-sauced scallops with cauliflower hit savory, tart and sweet notes by way of capers, kumquats and a honeyed verjus. Paella got an unconventional two-stage risotto-pancake treatment, but the rice’s crispy finish aped the essential socarrat texture under a heap of separately cooked seafood touched with paprika oil.
But those few stars were trapped in hopelessly scrambled constellations. My dinners—all of them—were incoherent and error-prone. Dishes clashed rather than complementing one another. Most of the “fun”-sounding ones were flat and boring. Carelessness afflicted too many others. Brussels sprouts were overcooked (really half-carbonized). Ice creams came in pools of their own melt. There’s a lovely apple coffee cake from Fond’s Jessie Prawlucki—but one night it turned up fridge-cold, in a kiln-hot bowl, after an inexplicably long wait.
Sophia’s spent its first month tinkering with a menu the restaurant abruptly discarded. It’s hard to imagine this second take will last much longer. And who knows? A third stab could be the charm. But for Christopher Lee to resurrect the hopes some people had for his return to Philadelphia, he’ll need to do something to reverse the impression that he’s really just phoning it in.