I used to love those big-deal restaurants, where you’d dress your best and keep an eye out for celebrities,” says Eddy Sujak, owner of Sofia in Englewood. “New Jersey needed a Manhattan-feeling restaurant like that, a velvet-rope scene without the velvet rope.”
Sofia is that kind of trendy-spendy spot. It has three contiguous dining areas, all attractively modern, with high ceilings: a 25-seat bar with tables and cosseting booths, a room with banquettes and a large skylight, and a garden room with hanging plants and a retractable ceiling. A deejay spins Reagan-era hits Wednesdays through Saturdays in the bar room, and the sound spills into the skylight room. You can also dine downstairs in Sofia’s ventilated, state-sanctioned cigar lounge.
Sofia’s strongest suit is its dry-aged steaks, cooked (along with chops, chicken and vegetables) in a Wood Stone oven burning oak and ash. A USDA Prime porterhouse for two ($98) was delectable, with a superb salt-and-pepper-rubbed char.
“Wotiz [in Passaic] ages our meat 28 days, then we age it up to 10 days more in our meat locker,” says executive chef Pasquale Frola, 46, a native Neapolitan. “Then the Wood Stone lets the steak speak for itself.”
That meal, our first, was in the garden room. It included piquant Italian long hot peppers with chunks of splendid fennel sausage, from Wotiz, blanketed with delicious melted Provolone. The fried calamari appetizer was ordinary; our waiter, blunt and impersonal.
On our second visit, instead of greeting my party, the hostess brayed, “Reservation?” Yes, we had one. We chose a booth across from the bar. Servers clustered nearby, not approaching our table. The waitress who finally took our drink orders described one Chardonnay as “earthy” and another as “popular.” Of Sofia’s 5 dozen wines, only 4 are under $50.
In the bar, the deejay’s music was deafening, and pleas for mercy from all three of my guests went unheeded. “Maybe we should text instead of talk,” one suggested. Crispy octopus featured one lone, chewy tentacle; the six specimens in clams oreganata were thumbnail-sized and pooled in a sauce that tasted mainly of butter. Two polpette (meatballs) were made with trimmings from the dry-aged beef, yet lacked flavor. Roasted eggplant salad amounted to a heap of microgreens with bits of chèvre and two slivers of marinated eggplant no bigger than dominoes.
“How’s your steak?” I shouted to my guest, who’d ordered the 16-ounce New York strip ($51). He gestured back with two thumbs up. A taste proved him right. Colorado lamb chops, ordered rare-to-medium-rare, arrived nearly well-done. A manager whisked them away, and the swift replacement was pink and enticingly gamy. Shrimp Veneziana’s trio of behemoths were tender and fresh. But their sauce, as with the clams, tasted mainly of butter. Spaghetti lobster, the pasta made in-house, delivered a mound of delicate Maine lobster chunks; but the sauce, labeled fra diavolo, lacked that red sauce’s signature zip.
Weekends bring flown-in Mediterranean fish like branzino, imperial snapper, amberjack and Portuguese sardines, priced from around $55 to $70. Apart from crisp shoestring fries, side dishes underperformed.
The same can be said of Frola’s desserts. Flourless pecan-chocolate cake was diminished by an acerbic espresso reduction. Ricotta cheesecake had a gummy crust. Apple crisp, absurdly underbaked, was garnished with cotton candy.
Sofia’s stupendous wood-grilled steaks are the reason to go. Though the design is ravishing, the noise is ridiculous. Friendlier service and more consistent execution across the menu would help it live up to its velvet-rope ambitions.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Italian - Steaks
Price Details:Appetizers, $10-$18; pastas, $18-$42; entrées, $25-$98; sides, $9; desserts, $9-$14
Ambience:Modern glam with disco-era vibe
Service:Brisk bordering on brusque
Wine list:Complicated cocktails, pricey wines