The advertisements were, to say the least, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: "Sophia's Cafe. Serving Mediterranean food! By Four-Star Chef Al Roubaie of Kansas City, MO. Chosen one of the top 100 restaurants by Esquire magazine of New York." So how could a restaurant open just a couple of weeks already have caught the discerning eye of Esquire?
Our first visit untangled the enigma, with the cited Esquire cover displayed prominently in the entryway of the new Sophia's. If nothing else, the advertising uses language with Yodalike clarity, because said issue lists the 100 best new restaurants of 1981. A restaurant called Al-Roubaie, in Kansas City, made the list that year on the basis of the innovative cooking of chef Kassim Al-Roubaie.
Immediately adjacent to the Esquire cover, however, was a further mystery. A 1986 article from the Kansas City Star lauded the food at Sophia's Cafe, then of the Kansas City area, but noted the tax and legal difficulties of its owner. Always willing to plumb the depths of the Internet, I checked out the Star Web site after that meal to see what else I could find out about the intriguing Mr. Al-Roubaie.
The Star's archives only go back to 1991, but I managed to find two further reviews of Al-Roubaie-headed restaurants: the Al-Roubaie Cafe in 1992 and Sophia's Cafe in Overland Park, Kan., in 1995. The latter review included a virtual tour of the Kansas City area, noting the two locations of the first Al-Roubaie, the first Sophia's (opened 1985, closed 1989); a spin-off called the Bercima Cafe (open for just a few months in Kansas City, then reopened in Lenexa, Kan., and closed in 1992); and then the version of Al-Roubaie, in a former Taco Bell, that was reviewed in 1992 and sold in 1993.
"Along the way, the Iraqi native fought off deportation attempts, pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and attempted to sue the FBI and then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese," wrote the Star's then-restaurant-critic John Martellaro.
I note, then, with no small sense of irony, that the new St. Louis Sophia's is, well, colorful. The dining room, seating perhaps 75, is a fairly subdued peach, but a bazaarlike Mediterranean coloring is introduced both by the staining of the glass in the westward-facing front windows with gradations of color and, after the sun sets, with parallel colors in the light fixtures of the ceiling fans. Add in the subtle ethnic music, and you could be sitting off a square in Marrakesh.
The menu is quite lengthy, with more than 50 entrees, although part of this effect is achieved by offering variations in primary ingredients on about half-a-dozen core sauces. Still, it's a challenging endeavor, and wandering through four fairly distinct sets of appetizers and entrees, we found that any effects from Al-Roubaie's nomadic tendencies are easily counterbalanced by some virtuoso cooking performances. What's more, with most entrees in the $8.95-$12.95 range and portions leaning toward mandatory-doggie-bag size, Sophia's is an excellent value.
Starting courses include a full range of Middle Eastern staples like baba ghannouj (mashed eggplant), hummus (chickpea spread) and tabbouleh (cracked-wheat salad). We checked out the falafel ($2.95) and the dolmas ($2.95). The first dish comprised three mini-(American)-footballs of ground garbanzo beans, mildly but tangibly spiced and topped with a sesame cream. The dolmas -- stuffed grape leaves -- were notable in that the method of cooking eliminated all but a hint of the traditional, almost tobaccolike bite of the flavor of the leaves, and this balanced perfectly with a very light tomato sauce.
On the more elaborate side among the appetizers, we also tried the stuffed mushrooms ($4.95) and the stuffed squid ($5.95). Squid in and of itself can put people off, but this preparation was spectacular. A light sauteing gives the white tubes an al dente quality, and generous quantities of shrimp, scallops, crab, crawfish tails and sole, sauced very lightly with an herbed cream, make the dish a siren for seafood lovers. The three standard mushroom caps were stuffed full with roughly chopped spinach lightly flavored with bacon and cheese, with a little surprise of a snail at the center -- similar in appearance and texture to what would have been the stems of the mushrooms.
We also slipped in a sample of the unusual almond soup ($1.95), a cream-and chicken-stock-based dish with almond slices on top and little bits of almond suspended in the liquid. In fact, almonds were a recurring motif throughout both of our meals, showing up in many of the items we sampled.
When done right, paella ($13.95) is a fabulous dish, and Al-Roubaie certainly does it right, adding an idiosyncratic touch (pieces of beef fillet) to the traditional preparation of chicken and seafood over saffron rice. In this case, the seafood included shrimp, scallops, mussels, salmon and crawfish, and all of the diverse ingredients were cooked perfectly, each retaining a proper level of moistness. Another outstanding preparation was the duck with orange-and-cognac sauce ($11.95), a half-duck, served skin-side-up with exceptional crispiness to the skin, and again, perfect moisture in the underlying meat, with a very tart and concentrated mandarin-orange flavor.
Among the other signature dishes, the scallops Sophia ($12.95) brought six large and plump sea scallops, very lightly breaded and cooked just so to retain theircontinued on page 58CLUBMEDcontinued from page 55firmness without hardening too much, served amid peas, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and yellow and red peppers in a delicate lobster sauce. The lamb chops Sophia ($12.95) included four double chops arranged in a cross shape, in the boldest of the sauces we tasted, a hearty brown sauce with overtones of curry and lemon.
In contrast to the main menu, the dessert list is short, numbering just five items (plus Turkish coffee). Here again, though, quality and quantity and value all are apparent, with $2.95 landing us a huge square of baklava surrounded by strawberries. The preparation here involves a multilayered attic of flaky phyllo dough, with the walnut and honey mixture removed by about a half-inch to the bottom. For a buck more, we got bananas Foster, three scoops of vanilla ice cream and slices of banana in a caramelly cinnamon-honey-and-cognac sauce.
Service was mixed on our two visits. Everyone on the staff was friendly and accommodating, but staffers often seemed confused about their individual roles, with a busperson offering tea on one visit but the waitress not offering any other beverages (despite the busperson's warning that she couldn't serve wine). The other visit was marred somewhat by poor staging, with appetizers arriving at different times and a mixup in entree orders. Also, the staff needs to remember that the kitchen is not well separated acoustically from the dining room, and so conversation and ordering should be kept to a much lower volume.
On the balance, however -- and despite the apparent hyperbole in the advertising copy -- Sophia's Cafe is an excellent destination, offering a combination of familiar Mediterranean dishes and a number of items that are unique to the chef, all at reasonable prices. Mr. Al-Roubaie may have a bit of a mysterious past, but for the present, he's finding a warm welcome on this side of the state.
SOPHIA'S CAFE, 13441 Olive (at Woods Mill, Chesterfield), 878-8063. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Entrees: $8.95-$22.95.