The last time I encountered Christopher Lee, it was 2006, and he was crafting tiny green beads of sour apple "caviar" to crown an exquisite crab salad at Striped Bass. He was riding the crest of the culinary avant-garde to a four-bell review, and soon to exit for New York where he'd continue his ascent to gastro-renown at Gilt and Aureole.
When I last visited 1623 E. Passyunk Ave., it was 2011, and Salt & Pepper was the latest bistro to open on this finally stirring South Philly strip. The bi-level space was full of promise and warmth, but ultimately, the menu was a low-key bore, too safe, and too inconsistent to become much of a beacon in what was becoming the city's hottest dining district.
What a surprising yet perfect match, I thought, when I learned S&P owner and longtime former Striped Bass server Joe Massara had lured his old colleague back to Philly to give his storefront restaurant-bar a jolt of excitement. They even reflagged it Sophia's - not after a lady, but clever word play on "South Philly's" - to emphasize the fresh start.
But expectations built on old impressions can be misleading.
For old Striped Bass fans, I'm guessing cheese fries, sliders, and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches aren't the first few dishes they imagined for Lee's triumphant return - even if they're as good as those at Sophia's. Sorry folks, but neither those crispy hand-cut fries cradled in a paper cone drizzled with tangy Mornay and pickled jalapeños, nor those juicy dry-aged meat sliders with crispy bacon on toasted mini-brioche buns, will bring back the long-gone glamour days of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row.
The dining landscape has taken leaps forward in the last seven years, elevating the ever-more-casual national culinary zeitgeist, energizing the thriving city scene. It might be disorienting to Lee, who had only visited East Passyunk once during his previous stint. And that was because he'd gotten lost looking for parking and a cheesesteak.
But with E'Punk now the center of excitement, is this all Lee's got? Really good bar food? Not exactly.
Yes, Lee has largely disavowed the rarefied plates and prices of haute cuisine for more familiar flavors and greater mass-appeal in his recent years as a restaurateur, in particular at Huntington Social, the Long Island gastropub he still owns and operates.
He's aiming a notch higher for a "bistro" here, with glimpses of some more refined dishes on this wide-ranging menu. Earthy black trumpet mushrooms encrust rosé-colored veal loins over vivid green chive butter, a nod to Lee's old Oceana and Jean-Georges days. Deconstructed paella delivers a scoop of every chef's favorite part - the crispy Calasparra rice - topped with a medley of perfectly cooked seafood with crispy chorizo in Pernod-scented seafood broth streaked with smoked paprika oil. Those briny oysters, dipped in yuzu-chile mignonette, were memorable.
It's unclear, though, whether Lee's please-everyone menu approach - which ranges from bites to sharing plates, from "rustic" to "New American" creativity - has enough of a distinctive personality for Philly's fickle diners to hold onto. Is Sophia's a neighborhood destination for tender meatballs in slow-steeped marinara over creamy polenta with a refreshing Sicilian Connection cocktail at the bar? Or an intimate date destination for bisquey lobster pot pie and a bottle of Bel Air Pouilly Fumé at a romantic window nook in the (slightly) quieter upstairs room?
A restaurant can be both these days, of course, although finding the perfect calculus for that balance can be elusive. And while Sophia's is a clear step-up from Salt & Pepper, there are some lingering issues to improve.
The service is well meaning and informed, but can be a little stiff. The limited drink selection is adequate and fairly priced, but not exactly exciting, either. The most memorable sips came as cocktails, a well-crafted Sazerac, for example, or the cinnamon- and star anise-spiced Manhattan variation called 1623 that I enjoyed more than I anticipated.
My biggest concern for Sophia's is a question of consistency, as Lee (who says he hopes to soon relocate here permanently) commutes three days a week from New York. Chef de cuisine Oris Jeffers, Lee's longtime sidekick at Striped Bass and Aureole, certainly does a solid job with this menu.
But my midweek visit was both Lee-less and less impressive than my weekend meal. The tiny crab cake coins over mustard dressing were pretty, but mushy and bland. The whole black bass came with a wonderfully aromatic garnish of hot ginger oil and dashi poured tableside. But the fish's steamed flesh absorbed none of the flavor. A spring cameo of tempura-fried softshells was all crunch but dry, the salsa-like ramp vinaigrette with minced peaches refusing to cling to the crabs, and pasty streaks of Greek yogurt that were all wrong.
The stumbles, though, were compensated for by some memorable flavors. Crispy little tacos made from fried wonton wrappers were a brilliant repackaging for tuna sashimi, diced with pineapples (for that al pastor touch) with shishito peppers, and a shallot-ginger glaze homage to the dumplings at David's Mei Lei Wah. (Some late-night treats, a Philly chef never forgets.)
A lamb shank was the epitome of slow-braised soul, a mahogany-glossed mallet of fork-tender meat over toothy cranberry beans. The handmade ravioli stuffed with pureed chestnut and apple, shined with brown butter and scattered with Brussels sprout leaves, were as delicate as the shank was hearty. A big plate of warm spinach and frisee greens delivered unexpected salad intrigue with the satisfying crunch of deep-fried quinoa.
The lobster pot pie could have been just the kind of signature showstopper Sophia's needs, had the flaky crust not sunk low into an underfilled bowl. That appears to have been remedied, though, by swapping the big round for a narrow, rectangular crock.
I'll also be curious to taste what Lee begins to produce for original ice creams (beyond chocolate and vanilla), adding to desserts that have otherwise been left to Sophia's talented neighbor, Jessie Prawlucki of Fond and Belle Cakery.
These are likely to be just some of many adjustments before Sophia's lives up to the expectations of Lee's pedigree. If he and Massara hope to rise to the top of East Passyunk's hot list, they may need to push the ambition dial one notch higher.
Chef Christopher Lee and co-owner Joe Massara discuss Sophia's at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at
2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews David Ansill at Bar Ferdinand. Contact him at 215-854-2682, email@example.com, or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.