Reverse the curse
Sofia815 11th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
Some restaurant spaces are just plain bad, and others seem to have badness thrust upon them an unfortunate restaurant curse. An example of the former would be the many restaurants that populate Sacramento’s strip malls, which have plate-glass expanses in front, boxy dining rooms, acoustical-tile ceilings and scintillating parking-lot views. An example of the latter would be the building at 815 11th Street, until recently the home of The Nine Doors and now transformed into Sofia.
It’s quite a nice space, but it seems to be cursed—possibly by sheer bad luck but probably by a combination of an out-of-the-way location, an unprepossessing entry and some form of troublesome restaurant juju. The Nine Doors opened and shut so fast that all those slamming doors still seem to be echoing. Sofia, which opened in April, quickly turned the attractive, beautifully designed pan-Asian spot into a cool, modern space with Italian leanings in look and menu. It’s dim and romantically candlelit. The fabrics and walls are a symphony in shades of taupe with accents of brown and white. There’s lovely glassware, there are stems of simple white irises in squared-off vases at the host station, and there are flickering votives everywhere, even on the walls.
I wondered if this quick-change operation was for real or just for show: Would this new restaurant transcend its building’s past? And, more importantly, would the food be any good? The menu promised Italian classics with a bit of modern style, from carpaccio with caper mustard to meaty classics like veal chop Milanese. There’s also a full bar, with cocktails like a lemon drop made with the Italian liqueur limoncello—a sweet and tart, high-octane treat.
On our visit, the restaurant was quiet—indeed, it was nearly empty—yet comfortable, with gracious service both from our waiter and from a manager who stopped by the table to make sure all was going well. The server provided helpful guidance to the menu, which offers many daily specials and is divided into antipasti, primi (pasta dishes plus a daily gnocchi and a risotto) and secondi (meat and fish).
I’m never sure whether pasta dishes labeled “primi” on American menus will be truly first-course-sized, as they are in Italy, or heartier, since American diners tend to order pasta as a main course. At Sofia, they are generous for a first course, but, as our waiter told us, they can go either way. My husband, unable to decide between the Sofia pasta—black tagliolini with a mix of seafood and spicy tomato sauce—and the roast pork, ordered the former as a first course and the latter as a second.
The Sofia, our waiter said, was the most generous of the pasta dishes, and it was a true winner. It arrived, slightly oddly, in a dramatically large packet of parchment. But inside, the dish was delicious, with perfectly cooked clams and mussels, shrimp and thin slices of tender scallops nestled among a basil-enriched, zesty tomato sauce. The star was the pasta itself, dark and wonderfully toothsome. All of Sofia’s gnocchi and pastas are made in house, the waiter said, with the exception of angel hair. I’m eager to sample more of them, given the excellence of this dish.
I started off with something from the antipasti menu, an unusual and refreshing salad of endive with shredded carrots, ribbons of crunchy fennel, juicy orange slices and a subtle caper- and olive-enhanced dressing. The only slight flaw in its delicate interplay of bittersweet flavors and texture was a few round chunks of endive core.
These dishes were so successful that I had high expectations for our entrees: in my case, a simple dish of sole with almonds; in my husband’s, the aforementioned pork. Alas, they were a bit disappointing, displaying neither the imagination nor the wonderful execution of our starters. The pork was a little dry, though the dried-tomato accompaniment was savory. The sole, on the other hand, was a touch mushy and bland; it could have used either salt or lemon to wake up the subtle flavors. Both dishes came with the same group of vegetables: crisp green beans, nicely roasted beets, sautéed bell peppers and excellent cubes of roasted potatoes. I had no quarrel with these accompaniments, but I would have liked to see the kitchen match the main courses to the sides with more care.
Things looked up again when it came to the desserts, which also are made in house. A quartet of profiteroles, two filled with chocolate mousse and two with vanilla pastry cream, were an indulgently yummy (and very shareable) treat. I had a much subtler semifreddo, a slice of frozen creaminess with hazelnuts and flakes of chocolate. Its quiet flavors were almost overwhelmed by the tart, vibrant raspberry sauce that accompanied it, but it was very nice on its own.
I’d love to see Sofia succeed, with its beautiful space and the promise of much of the cooking, especially the pasta. All curses have to end sometime (just ask the Red Sox), and perhaps now is the time for this restaurant space. If Sofia can work out some kinks in the main courses, and if Sacramento diners are willing to stray just a little north of J Street, it might just beat its location’s odds.