Christopher Lee’s Sophia’s Settles Into A Family-Style Groove

GeneralDisarray

Okay, so I really have no idea what to make of this.

I got the press release about the new concept at Sophia’s (Christopher Lee‘s bid for new relevance on East Passyunk) about two hours ago and have been staring at it ever since, trying to figure out just what in the hell it is trying to say. It uses a lot of words and phrases that are completely contradictory. It presents a vision for the restaurant that makes it seem like a place I would NEVER want to go to. And the menu itself is just dull and backward and weird in more ways than I can count.

So rather than trying to parse the whole thing and hack my way through all the PR-speak, I’m just posting the thing, in its entirety, below. There’ll be a few specific comments after, but if you don’t care about weird, insider-y restaurant PR bullshit then you can totally skip it and just know that Sophia’s on East Passyunk is now going to be some kind of strange small plate/anti-small-plate/family-style/neighborhood/destination restaurant mutant serving cheesesteak soup dumplings and paella.

For reals.

Chef Christopher Lee Releases Menu

And Fresh Direction for Newly Minted Sophia’s

Philadelphia, PA— The team at Sophia’s — including Executive Chef Christopher Lee, Chef de Cuisine Oris Jeffers and Partner Joe Massara — spent their opening month of January sampling dishes and asking patrons for feedback on offerings. This week, Lee and his team release a new menu that is the result of their planned testing period.

The new menu is meant for sharing — and features an eclectic array of world-spanning New American-style dishes with European and Asian influences. The twist on the menu is that though intended for sharing, the main offerings pivot on larger plates, rather than the ubiquitous small plate concepts.

“When I really like something, I want more than a bite or two of it,” Lee explains. “And after talking to guests for the past month, I think this menu brings something fresh to the neighbor mix.”

The heart of the menu includes Rustic and New American sections. The Rustic section brings large-format dishes Pasta Orecchiette, Seafood Paella, German Bratwust, Grilled Whole Branzino and Braised Lamb Shank. The New American dishes are more refined in presentation with the likes of L.I. Peking Duck Breast, Atlantic Spotted Skate, Diver Sea Scallops. The New American dishes are well presented with a side starch such as basil potato puree with the duck breast and fingerling potatoes with the New York Strip. Pricing for these dishes range from $17-$27. The dishes in the Rustic and New American sections are larger than traditional small plates. The dishes are served family-style, unless otherwise requested.

Sides & Salads include Baby Root Vegetables, Broccoli Rabe, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Sautéed Spinach, and salads such as Watercress & Frisée and Caesar. Prices range from $4-$9.

“This way our guests get exactly what they want,” Lee says. “We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, we just want to give our guests the most satisfying experience possible,” Lee adds. “Whether you’re at the bar or upstairs in the dining room; whether it’s a casual Wednesday or a special date on Saturday night, there’s something perfectly suited and delicious on this menu for you.”

The Bites section is available both at the bar and in the second-floor dining room and includes tempting smaller plates, which can work with the Sides & Salads for a complete casual meal, a satisfying and savory bar snack, or a delicious way to start a full, multi-course dining experience.

Sophia’s Bites include Philly Cheese Steak Dumplings, Mini Tuna Sashimi Tacos, Sophia’s Meatballs, House Blend Sliders, among the offerings. $7-12.

Also new at Sophia’s is a new late-night weekend happy hour, Friday and Saturday from 10pm-Midnight with the same generous offerings at Sophia’s Tuesday-Friday, 5pm-7pm Social Hour — including $3 select beer, $5 wines, $6 featured cocktail.

Sophia’s brings a unique blend of impeccable culinary standards and neighborhood charm to the hottest restaurant strip in Philadelphia— East Passyunk Ave. Chef Christopher Lee and his all-star team achieve a delicate balance of providing guests with not only delicious dishes, but also a complete dining-out experience that is not to be missed with Sophia’s new menu meant for sharing.

Okay, so I have a few thoughts.

Thought 1: What the fuck does the sentence “The dishes in the Rustic and New American sections are larger than traditional small plates” even mean?  That would be the definition of a regular sized plate: Bigger than the little one over there. “Larger than traditional small plates” should mean, like, regular sized fucking plates, right? But no. Not at Sophia’s. Because these bigger-than-small-plates-but-not-regular-sized-fucking-plates are also “served family-style, unless otherwise requested.” And maybe I’m the one who’s being an idiot here, but doesn’t “family-style” mean “big”? As in, a giant plate full of food that you and several members of your family might share? Which, if I’m not mistaken, would also mean significantly larger than a regular-sized plate. So the question I’m left with is, what is Christopher Lee doing at Sophia? Is he serving regular-sized plates that regular-sized humans can eat or is he just plunking down a bucket full of branzino and mashed potatoes in front of a family of us fat fucks and letting us shovel it in with our hands?

Thought 2: Christopher Lee himself says that his reason for re-inventing the normal-sized plate is because “When I really like something, I want more than a bite or two of it” which is, you know, a fascinating look inside the mind of a chef.

Thought 3: His new menu at Sophia’s starts with a menu of fucking small plates. From this I can only surmise that these are plates that Lee thinks suck so bad that no one (including Lee) would want more than a bite or two of them. Which, considering one of the options is for “Philly Cheese Steak” soup dumplings, is probably true.

Thought 3a: Don’t start giving me shit for hating on something that I haven’t tasted yet. The very concept of a “Philly Cheese Steak” soup dumpling hinges on the notion of mixing melted cheese and soup together in one bite and there is no universe in which that is a good idea.

Thought 4: If the month of January has been retroactively declared a “planned testing period,” then give everyone who ate there their money back. Seriously. NOW.

Thought 5: “The new menu is meant for sharing — and features an eclectic array of world-spanning New American-style dishes with European and Asian influences. The twist on the menu is that though intended for sharing, the main offerings pivot on larger plates, rather than the ubiquitous small plate concepts.” See thoughts 1 & 3. Also, these two sentences contain the exact number of contradictory clauses necessary to induce rage hemorrhages in the brains of sensitive readers–a limit heretofore known as The Sophia’s Terminus.

Thought 6: Mini tuna sashimi tacos? Really? Will they be served to me by some 80’s villain in a popped-collar Izod shirt and penny loafers with no socks? The last time mini tuna sashimi tacos were cool was when Nobu was serving them to Laura Dern and that guy from Blind Melon.

Thought 7: Taking all of the above thoughts into consideration, here is the menu that Sophia’s will be laboring under going forward.

Bites

“Philly Cheese Steak” Soup Dumplings (6pc)9

Grilled Shrimp Skewers pineapple, shiso (4pc) 10

Mini Tuna Sashimi Tacos avocado, shishito peppers (4pc) 11

“Sophia’s” Meatballs creamy polenta, basil (5pc) 8

House Blend Sliders aged brie, bacon, grilled onions(3pc) 12

Spanish Fries chorizo, manchego cheese 7

Rustic

Pasta Orecchiette classic bolognese, parmesan cheese 16
Seafood & Shellfish Paella saffron rice, green olives, piquillo peppers 25
Grilled Whole Branzino lemon, oregano, roasted garlic oil 23
German Bratwurst herbed spaetzle, coarse grain mustard sauce 21
Braised Lamb Shank cranberry bean cassoulet, mint 22

New American

Apple Chestnut Ravioli’s pecorino cheese, sage brown butter 15
Atlantic Spotted Skate fregola, raisins, moroccan curry sauce 19
Diver Sea Scallops cauliflower, capers, kumquats, pistachio nuts 21
L.I. Pekin Duck Breast basil potato puree, black olive jus 24
NY Strip Steak fingerling potatoes, brandy peppercorn sauce 27

Salad & Sides

Watercress & Frisee Salad blood orange, goat cheese, walnuts 9

Caesar Salad 7 minute egg, parmesan cheese, black pepper 8

Baby Root Vegetables lemon parsley butter 6

Broccoli Rabe garlic, evoo, chile flakes 5

Roasted Brussels Sprouts smoked bacon 5

Sautéed Spinach garlic, black pepper 4

My final thought is simply this: Maybe it’s going to be awesome. Maybe this menu is going to be the best thing ever and will make you grow six inches and crap rainbows for a week. Christopher Lee is a chef with a helluva reputation, East Passyunk is a neighborhood in the throes of a massive boom and maybe this is precisely what Philadelphia wants and needs right now. Maybe I am just a bitter, jaded asshole getting pissy over some ill-turned phrases and overdone gimmickry.

But to me, this menu (and the accompanying everything-for-everybody-all-the-time-happy-forever PR documentation) smacks of the worst kind of lowest common denominator desperation. It feels like fence-sitting and reads like a playbook crowdsourced from a room full of management consultants operating under the guiding principle that any restaurant can be made awesome if only everyone involved says all the right buzzwords fast enough and loud enough. And that’s bullshit because a restaurant–even a shitty restaurant–is supposed to be about something. There should be some kind of organizing, defining, animating principle at play in the genes of the place that makes it more than just a box with some food inside. Think about Sophia’s neighbors. Le Virtu, Stateside, Fond, Will and all the rest. They all have this. Sophia’s, at least from where I’m sitting, does not. And unless Christopher Lee can mount some stirring defense of his love for mini tuna tacos and family-style/bigger-than-small=plate/neighborhood restaurant date night bar food, my biggest fear is that the lack of coherence in the explanation of the concept represents a lack of coherence in the actual concept. If no one can explain what the restaurant is about it’s generally because no one really knows.

But fuck it. What do I know. Maybe steamed soup and cheese is just motherfucking delicious.

Sophia’s [Official]