Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sophia's Restaurant - Jackson

Picture this scenario: you’re new in town and you don’t know the landscape of Jackson. Naturally, you’ll look for the necessities, grocery stores, mechanics, doctors, a new favorite bar etc, but sooner or later, you’ll be looking for fine dining. It may be a once a year event; maybe the parents are in town or it’s your anniversary, but the topic of best/finest restaurant in Jackson will rear its head. Of course there are a few predictable answers, Derek Emerson’s Walker’s Drive Inn is an expected candidate as is Bravo, Nick’s, and even Char. However, I’ve noticed that one restaurant in particular is usually absent from these discussions, Sophia’s Restaurant in the Fairview Inn.


One reason Sophia’s may not frequently enter the discussion is location. Half a block off State Street, nestled in a shady drive on Fairview Street, you could drive past The Fairview Inn & Sophia’s a hundred times and never know they’re there. However, that seclusion is also part of Sophia’s charm. It’s a relatively small restaurant with an elegant dining room that provides a level of intimacy and classic sophistication that is in short supply.


Of course, intimacy, sophistication, and elegance, while all well and good, are superfluous if a restaurant doesn’t serve a product that’s of the same standard. It was only a matter of where to start. As with many meals across Jackson, the state, and the region, it began with a cup of gumbo.

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To be exact, it was a cup of creole gumbo.

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Swimming with flecks of crab meat and other delights, this cup of gumbo was promising.

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Unfortunately there was more rice than anything else, including flavor. There was no real depth of a roux, no buttery tomato richness you’d expect in a creole gumbo, just a bowl of relatively bland rice porridge.


Fortunately, not all of Sophia’s soups were as disappointing as their gumbo. One example was a daily special of crab & asparagus soup.

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With a creaminess more akin to a bisque, this was a rich bowl bursting with the flavors of crab and asparagus.

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There may not have been much in the way of lump crab meat, just a few errant pieces, but there was enough crab flavor to match the tender asparagus spears that were bobbing in the cup.


After soups, the important section of the lunch menu is the sandwich section. While some may be drawn to the muffaletta or chicken salad sandwich, I had my eyes on Simon’s burger.
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A half pound of Kobe beef topped with Havarti cheese on a sesame seed bun with sweet potato fries, it was picture perfect.

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There may not have been a particularly bold beefiness to the burger, but the juicy mix of beef, salty cheese, pickles, and lettuce was sublime.
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I had asked for medium rare and I was pretty pleased with the result, not too bad for packaged pre-ground beef.


As for the sweet potato fries

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It was a pleasant mix of crunchy edges and pillow soft interiors. Well salted and well cooked, these fries were a solid side to the Kobe burger.


While burgers may be a menu staple across the country, po-boys are certainly a regional specialty.
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In New Orleans, Leidenheimer bread is de rigeur for po-boys, in Jackson most use Gambino’s, but Sophia’s take another route by using a toasted baguette.

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Fried oyster, lettuce, tomato, remoulade and a baguette may not be the standard, but there’s room for interpretation.

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There may have been only six oysters to this po-boy but they packed just the right amount of salty, crisp breading and brininess to make an excellent po-boy filling.

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While a baguette may not pack the crunch of Leidenheimer bread, the filling's combination of well-fried osyters, remoulade and a touch of hot sauce made for a fine po-boy.


After focusing on soups and sandwiches, it would be unfair to skip the entrée section of the lunch mention.

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Braised short ribs over grits may seem like an oddly heavy item for a lunch menu, but tasting these ribs erased any doubts.

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While these ribs were achingly tender and full of rich, beefy flavor they were under seasoned.

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A quick addition of salt and pepper remedied that shortcoming, but lack of salt plagued the grits as well. However, the unctuous gravy was there to bring everything together to make a fine dish. Still, it’s disappointing to see that something as basic as salt & pepper on the ribs and salt for the grits could have made this good dish great.


Up until this point, everything has been on the lunch menu and normally I would be fine with that. However, the dinner menu at Sophia’s is so drastically different that I knew I would have to try it. So, six months after my first lunch at Sophia’s, I was finally able to take a crack at what Sophia’s dinner menu had to offer.


In a throwback to the oyster po-boy, the first dinner dish was the cornmeal fried gulf oysters appetizer.
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Drizzled with a barbeque vinaigrette, these were simple, well-fried oysters.

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The barbeque vinaigrette was an interesting addition to the oysters. While it didn’t elevate the oysters to new levels, it certainly didn’t hurt them either.


One major difference between the lunch and the dinner menu was the appearance of a pork belly appetizer.
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Sure, Fudge Farms Berkshire pork belly may be overplayed as a dish, but when it’s crispy and served with grits, a bourbon glaze and a fig jam, you just stop caring about overexposure.

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Thankfully, the pork belly lives up to expectations. The skin offers a satisfying crunch while the silky layers of fat and substantial layers of meat lie beneath.

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With the dish, the grits offer a welcome balance to the richness of the pork and the sweet jam and glaze. Pork belly is by no means an everyday dish but when you do find the occasion to enjoy it; this is a stellar way to do so.


In a sure sign of overdoing it, a plate of fried frog’s legs also made it to the table.
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Rarely seen in the Jackson area, these frog legs were a little on the greasy side but still quite juicy. The sauce did seem eerily similar to the one used on the fried oysters, but it played well with the legs.


Although unintentional, I had been ignoring the ample selection of fish at Sophia’s. In an effort to remedy that fault, I ordered the pistachio crusted black grouper for my entrée.

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Take my advice and pay more attention to the fish at Sophia’s.

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A thick, lightly salted crust was the perfect foil to the expertly cooked fish. With every bite it was an excellent balance of fish, pistachios, and creamy starch.


In contrast to the delicate textures of the grouper was the Fudge Farms porterhouse.

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While this dish should have been a celebration of glorious, juicy pork, the porterhouse was surprisingly dry. It was still a fine cut of meat, but it suffered the pitfalls of many large cuts, juicy in the middle with a border near well done. One distracting portion of the dish was the Abita root beer glaze; instead of being complimentary, it simply overpowered the pork.


Like many restaurants, Sophia’s has its fair share of faults. From under seasoning in the short ribs to overly aggressive additions in the pork porterhouse, there do seem to be a few problems with finding a suitable middle ground for seasoning. Sadly, I’ve experienced this problem before with one of their Culinary World Tour dinners. However these are minor inconveniences in terms of the overall quality of the restaurant. There were simply too many well-planned & well-executed dishes to dwell on the negatives. In the end, I don’t know if I would enter Sophia’s into the discussion for best restaurant in Jackson, but it certainly deserves consideration.


Sophia’s Restaurant Address & Information

734 Fairview Street, Jackson, MS 39202 // 601.948.3429 // Sophia’s Restaurant Website // Sophia’s Restaurant Menu // Sophia’s Restaurant Reservations

Sophia's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another reason people may not think of Sophia's is because they do not advertise heavily. This is probably because they are operating illegally without the proper permitting in defiance of a Mississippi Supreme Court order while the City of Jackson knowingly turns a blind Eye.

Cynical Cook said...

>Anon

I assume you're referring to the ruling in this article?

http://msbusiness.com/2010/07/sophias-still-awaiting-ruling-on-zoning-issue/

I wasn't aware of that situation, but thanks for letting me know.