Anna and I were having lunch a few Fridays ago at Sofia Bistro when she told me she'd heard on NPR that the average cost of a house in the United States is now $250,000. Apparently in certain cities, such as San Diego, that sum won't even net you a two-bedroom condo. From what she and I (both renters still) have seen of St. Louis prices, our fair city isn't far behind. We've both been obsessively wrestling in our heads with that bit of news ever since, wondering how the hell real grownups can afford their mortgages and, as a backup, trying to picture ourselves as hip spinsters in 30 years' time, letting little rooms in other people's homes.
One of the reasons the whole thing really stuck in my craw was because, as I said, we were having lunch at Sofia, which sits on a cute intersection in a residential part of University City, south of Delmar and west of the Loop -- an area so suburban-idyllic, so upper-middle-class charming, it's hard to tell just where U. City ends and Clayton begins. It's the sort of nabe where I like to take my dog for long walks on the weekend, cursing the lucky folks who live in those resplendent mini-manses and wishing I could be them. If all it took were ditching the writing life, trolling for a husband at an Annie Gunn's happy hour and voting for the occasional Republican, I think I could do it.
And if I did, then I'd get to call Sofia my neighborhood bistro, my little place around the corner where the mister and I like to go for a nice, casual weeknight dinner. And if I did it soon, in the next couple of months or so, then I'd get to have those lovely suppers out on Sofia's sidewalk terrace. It's nothing too big or fancy, but it's perfect: just nine or so wrought-iron, black-painted, tree-shaded tables, where we can let the baby sleep in the Bugaboo stroller as we sip our wine and tuck into the restaurant's wonderfully turned-out, Mediterranean-inspired dishes, talking about whatever it is well-to-do couples with kids discuss.
In the real world, though, I can still pretty much do that. I have to drive to get to Sofia, but once I'm there, a wonderful meal for two -- complete with appetizers, entrées, a few rounds of drinks and a dessert or two -- can be had for less than a hundred bucks.
Sofia's chef and owner is Teddy Ivanov, a Bulgarian native (the restaurant is named after the Eastern European nation's capital city) who came to St. Louis about seven years ago on a culinary internship with Hyatt hotels. In Bulgaria Ivanov worked at a private club, cooking for ambassadors and other government VIPs; after his stint with Hyatt, he worked here for David Slay at the Seven Gables Inn and ZuZu's Petals. Sofia stems in part from his desire to do simpler food in a less formal ambiance. Most entrée prices here hover between $15 and $23, topping out with a $26.95 veal loin chop. Ivanov mans the stoves at lunch and dinner with a small support staff and a salad guy who comes in about twice a week. Ivanov is his own prep cook, and he makes his breads, pastas and desserts in-house.
Bulgarian cuisine entails a lot of feta cheese (Greece is Bulgaria's neighbor to the south), which Ivanov likes to cook with; it's usually only seen stateside in its raw form, crumbled onto gyros and Greek salads. He employs feta liberally throughout a menu of French, Greek and Italian-style offerings that seamlessly combine rustic, European flavors with an urbane bistro presentation. Ivanov considers the artichoke provençal appetizer, which he developed while working at ZuZu's, his signature dish: feta and goat cheese, artichoke hearts, basil and other herbs, coated with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese and shaped into tomato-size balls, pan-fried and plated with a provençal tomato sauce (tomato, garlic, parsley, olive oil, white wine). Eggplant Riviera wraps slices of cooked eggplant around a filling of feta, ricotta, egg, bread crumbs and basil. Served over a saucy tomato coulis with a béchamel sauce and a melted mozzarella-fontina blend on top, it's heavenly and could pass for homemade manicotti. Feta is used raw in a chopped salad of turkey, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs, greens and sliced canned mushrooms, which actually impart a great texture. When the restaurant opened back in April, Ivanov was sautéing cremini mushrooms for the salad but found he had to cut down on his workload in the kitchen. To drive the feta point home, Ivanov offers a baked feta appetizer, a brick of melted cheese sitting in a bath of tomato coulis and fresh peppers; the dish's sole flaw was a lack of bread for dipping.
While Sofia's appetizers speak Greek and Bulgarian, entrées veer French. Lavender isn't very detectable in the roasted duck lavender, but that's just fine -- the caramelized orange-maple glaze puts itself front and center on the taste buds, while an accompanying wild rice pilaf (rotated daily with other starches, usually polenta) is, for pilaf, amazingly tasty. A near-gluttonous stuffed beef filet, at least eight ounces of tenderloin, comes heaping with shrimp, more of that tomato provençal, and melted cheese. These and other main dishes are sided -- again, in simple but satisfying style -- with an ample helping of steamed vegetables, typically a nice fat stalk of vibrantly colored broccoli, a smattering of cauliflower florets and julienned carrots. A great lunch option is the Balkan-style moussaka, an oven-baked casserole of eggplant, potato and ground lamb.
When Ivanov took over the corner restaurant space that most recently was occupied by La Piazza, he inherited a bar shaped like a half-hexagon with taps set up to distribute not beer but wine. Sofia therefore offers eight whites and nine reds by the glass, as well as a solid roster of about 40 bottles from Italy, France and the United States. Prices seem just about right for the ambiance, the neighborhood and the menu, with nothing in excess of $55.
Live like the rich folk? That's okay -- I just want to eat like they do.