Though we might wish otherwise, America seems less of a melting pot these days and more like a chopped salad. So when a restaurant in Scottsdale proudly defines itself as “modern European and American,” while touting Old World Lithuanian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, French and Irish influences, it seems nothing short of preposterous. Heck, if humanity can’t make it work, how can we expect all these conflicting countries to meld on a plate?
Sonata Molocajeviene Tuft strove for that lofty goal by opening a namesake restaurant. Tuft, who originally hails from Lithuania, handed recipes to Arizona local Josh Bracher, who promptly began researching the types of European cuisine the executive chef likely never prepared in large quantities (though he was properly trained at Arizona Culinary Institute and in the kitchens of Posh, Tanzy and Second Story Liquor Bar). What emerged was a menu both familiar and curious, sprinkled with standards for those who refuse to eat anything they cannot pronounce. Even the cocktail menu offers four variations of a Moscow Mule for those who dare to dabble.
Before sharing details about what our meal entailed—and in the interest of full disclosure—know my ancestry traces back to Russia and Poland, not China, and only my diet had German influence—despite what the byline might suggest. The first order of business at Sonata’s was to eschew anything that might cause a visceral reaction (like borscht and pickled herring). Secondly, we would skip over anything that sounded contrary to the theme—octopus, pate, foie gras, oxtail and smoked pork belly confit, for example—and instead opt for items with DNA linkage.
To that end, the first dish we selected was a wood-roasted kohlrabi and shaved apple salad, a flavor combination that took a little getting used to. We enjoyed the crunch of the finger-size logs of peppery, bitter vegetable tossed in a tangy poppy seed mustard vinaigrette, but really relished getting a cooling bite of fresh mint or a soft chew of Camembert. Next came potato pancakes topped with shreds of roasted duck. A much more predictable plate, this dish satisfied our longing for something recognizable yet introduced us to two components we had never heard of but quickly learned to adore: Smetana (aka Lithuanian sour cream) and ljutenica, a spicy vegetable chutney made mostly of sweet peppers, eggplant and tomato. Next came the pierogis, often considered Poland’s national dish, but here, they are served Ruskie-style, blanketed in a sherry wine glaze, adorned with melted leeks and accompanied by a smear of celery root puree. We would have preferred a little more chewiness from the dumpling dough, but, otherwise, this creation was comfort food at its finest.
As the plates disappeared, Sonata’s started to reach full capacity. By 7:30pm, it seemed every one of the 170 seats was accounted for, including the high-tops by the bar and the tables on an elevated stage. The large room was abuzz with chatter, yet we could still hear a woman’s soothing voice through a microphone, her songs bouncing off the tin ceilings and sinking into a wall covered in cross-sectioned logs. On this chilly night, only the large outdoor patio with a fire pit stood vacant, but even that filled up with a private event by the time 9pm rolled around.
Our reverie quickly diminished when we smelled someone’s hair catching fire, only to realize the scent was coming from our lamb persillade, which arrived in a skillet of smoldering hay accompanied by a pile of kasha grains mixed with hearty mushrooms and topped with Smetana. Thankfully, the dish tasted much better than its aroma. A satisfying smoked beef short rib stroganoff with pappardelle came next, topped with a dollop of—you guessed it—more Smetana. (Unfortunately, entrees show at staggered intervals.) Then the pièce de résistance appeared: a rich and satisfying chicken Kiev topped with wild mushrooms. The second a knife pierced the golden, breaded surface, steam rose and a river of havarti and lemon butter oozed out, pooling on top of the Boursin mash. Despite its enormity, we ate it all and wanted more.
Hard to believe, but at the insistence of our endearing Turkish server (why not throw one more cultural ingredient into the mix?), we were also able to polish off an order of warm, bite-size spurgos varškės, aka Lithuanian curd cheese doughnuts, served with vanilla pastry cream, hazelnut chocolate spread and strawberry marmalade. The feat made us wonder: If all these foreign flavors were able to meld so beautifully in our tummies, why is it that people have such a tough time coexisting? Hmm, world peace on a plate. Something to chew on.
SONATA'S RESTAURANT AND RESTART BAR
10050 N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 127, Scottsdale, 480.477.1390
Cocktails, $9-$16; appetizers and soups, $7-$18; entrees, $15-$32; desserts, $4-$9
Mon.-Fri., 11-1am; Sat., 10-1am; Sun. 10am-10pm
Originally published in the March issue of Scottsdale