by Len Lear
The economy is still so bad that drug addicts are now snorting foot powder. It’s so bad that a bird in the hand is now only worth one in the bush, but there is a solution: the Wednesday night prix fixe ($32) three-course dinner at Sonata, a wonderful BYOB (even Craig LaBan, the Inquirer’s acerbic critic, loved it) that opened almost two years ago, shortly after the economy crashed and burned, at 1030 N. American St. in Philly’s Northern Liberties section.
Although Northern Liberties is one of the hottest restaurant neighborhoods in the Delaware Valley, it is easy to overlook Sonata because it is not on 2nd Street, where all the action is. Sonata is well worth seeking out, however, since it is offering one of the best dining bargains on this side of the Delaware River. It just makes cents. (The restaurant is named Sonata because owner Mark Tropea is a musician who would have made a career out of music if not for his love of cooking.)
When we first discovered Sonata last September, I wrote that you could break some fingers from an overdose of high fives after discovering this place, but there were only two other diners in the restaurant during our first visit. When we went last Wednesday, however, there were 22, so at least more people are being attracted to the glitter of this jewel. (The BYOB can seat 38 indoors and 10 more outdoors.)
On the highway of humility, there’s not too much traffic, but one driver on it is Sonata’s owner/chef Mark Tropea, a handsome but modest pinata of energy. Mark, 30, a Glen Mills native who got hooked on cooking as a teenager and later graduated from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia, had a pastry chef who made drool-worthy desserts, Krystal Weaver, but she left a few weeks ago. “It was amicable,” said Mark. “In fact, she even left all of her recipes, which is unusual. She was just offered a job in New Jersey making more money, so I can’t blame her for taking it. But her replacement (Ksenia Strockyj, of Ukrainian descent), a graduate of the Philadelphia Art Institute’s culinary school, is doing a great job.”
Tropea’s kitchen is more than capable of delivering with precision some of the old faithfuls as well as simple but elegant presentations that leave eye-OK ingredients to the solitude of a soulfully crafted sauce. Up until this dinner, the best octopus dish I ever had was at Estia, the ultra-pricey Greek restaurant on Locust Street near Broad, but the Sonata version is definitely in a tie for first. It is a food ballet on the plate, with the braised spanish octopus pirouetting around the crispy potato and pickled ramp, caressed by a lemon cayenne vinaigrette.
It seems as if any restaurateur who can fog up a mirror is putting pork belly on his/her menu these days, but the one at Sonata is still the most elevated we have tasted. It is a naturalist, savory still life with smoked tomato marmalade, compressed apple and molasses. Consistency is king here at Sonata, and this dish comes out wearing a crown. A lemon fish entree also shows real inspiration, with the mild seafood perched on a pedestal of English pea risotto and tomato cardamom broth, and an entree of butter-poached “pot pie” with edamame and morel mushrooms has generated rhapsodies of praise on the food blogs.
A dessert of banana crème brulee, peanut butter mousse and a non-pareil homemade peanut brittle (nothing like the tooth-cracking stuff you get in supermarkets) provides the backbeat to a song your taste buds will sing about Sonata. Our comely server, Kate Connelly, was absolutely delightful.
This food is as serious as Monday morning. Sonata is a horse you can ride over and over, and anyone who says otherwise is probably cruel enough to tell his dog that he’s adopted.
I would urge anyone interested in Sonata not to take my word for it but to check out what the restaurant bloggers have to say about it. As of this week, 68 customers have written reviews of Sonata on urbanspoon.com. Of those, 66 were raves. A typical comment was from A. Gras, who wrote: “This could be one of the top three restaurants in the city. Amazing menu and great atmosphere. What else can you ask for? Very well done! Don’t miss this place.” Opentable.com had 106 reviews, of which 102 were positive. Yelp.com had 43 reviews, of which 40 were raves. Amanda P. wrote: “We love this restaurant. Our first time dining was a few weeks after their opening, and the quality and consistency with each visit since is a true tale of the perfection of Mark Tropea.”
Free parking is available in the lot right behind Sonata restaurant (even though a sign says “permit parking”) or on North American Street. For travel directions, visit the Web site. Wednesday is the only prix fixe night at Sonata. On other nights the menu — with all of the same choices — is a la carte.
To use a dining metaphor, Mark has the competition licked. For more information or reservations, call 215-238-1240 or visit www.sonatarestaurant.com.