Baby Steps 

Still in its infancy, Sofie's Bistro could mature into a dining destination

Even suburban sprawl, with its persistent creep of uniform cul-de-sacs and inflatable mega-churches, must have its good points. In the fertile, rapidly subdividing acreage between Old Hickory Boulevard and Concord Road, one of the highlights is Sofie’s Bistro, a cozy eatery that could inspire a drive into the vanishing countryside along Nolensville Pike.

Even suburban sprawl, with its persistent creep of uniform cul-de-sacs and inflatable mega-churches, must have its good points. In the fertile, rapidly subdividing acreage between Old Hickory Boulevard and Concord Road, one of the highlights is Sofie’s Bistro, a cozy eatery that could inspire a drive into the vanishing countryside along Nolensville Pike.

Sofie’s owner Bill Darsinos is a suburban guy from way back. He moved back to the United States from Corinth, a suburb of Athens, Greece, 17 years ago. He cut his restaurant teeth in his family’s casual Donelson dining establishment, Darfons, named for the founding Darsinos family and short-time partner Juan Fonseca.

Now, after five years in real estate development, Darsinos, 33, is back in the restaurant business full-time, with a place of his own that he named for his infant daughter.

A black-and-white portrait of 9-month-old Sofie hangs beside the front door, conveying an instant and unexpected sense of intimacy to this strip-mall storefront. And the compact main dining room—with its simple décor of white tablecloths, earth tones on walls and floor, amber pendant lights and colorful abstract canvases—invites casual evenings of wine and conversation or Sunday mornings of mimosas and recovery.

Chef Todd Albertson, formerly of Sunset Grill, delivers a brunch menu ranging from omelets, quiche and huevos rancheros to more lunch-like items such as salad and paninis. Bountiful plates—accented with colorful fruit salad—and dessert-worthy coffee drinks circulate the room, whetting the appetites of all who hungrily peruse the 10-item menu.

Cinnamon-swirled French toast puts a decadent spin on the brunch staple. Instead of drenching a simple slice of bread in the egg-and-vanilla mixture, Albertson uses cinnamon buns for an over-the-top confection that some might equate with gilding the proverbial lily. (At our table of lily-gilders, we just wondered why we’d never thought of it before.)

We also enjoyed the ginger-lemongrass salmon, which does double-duty on the dinner menu. Served with buttered spinach, the lightly cooked fish carried a counterpoint of sweet carrot coulis and spicy chili sauce, while a goat cheese-quinoa croquette—pan-fried crisp on the outside—offered a pearly alternative to a grit cake. The delicious eggs Oscar embellished the standard Benedict, piling crabmeat, asparagus and béarnaise onto poached eggs and English muffins.

With a rich menu of well-executed plates, piping-hot coffee and a friendly staff—including Baby Sofie’s gregarious and proud grandmother—there’s not much more to ask for. (That said, we could wish for a better patio view than the dump trucks hurtling south.) And since there aren’t many brunch spots in Nashville—in town or out in the ’burbs—Sofie’s could well draw a loyal following of South Side locals as well as a curious crowd of more far-flung brunch-seekers.

But once the sun sets, Albertson’s got his work cut out for him. In a city buzzing with so-called upscale eclectic concepts, it’s no small challenge to craft a menu and a price point that can lure folks out Owl Creek way around suppertime.

“I want to give people a downtown place to eat that’s not downtown,” Albertson says, adding that he wants food “that would make people go, ‘Huh?’ ” His dinner rosters—dotted with eye-catching items such as yellowtail snapper ceviche, lamb chili and blood oranges—succeed in piquing interest and appetite. And the simple detail of bread with honey-fennel butter sets the tone for a creative meal.

We particularly enjoyed the garlic roast duck, featuring an intriguing combination of mango, chipotle and tangy fried blue cheese grits. The basil-anise lamb with polenta, artichoke and eggplant presented a thoughtful treatment of succulent pink-in-the-center chops; and the ostrich au poivre over sweet potato and succotash introduced a lean, tender and flavorful substitute for beef.

The ambitious fusion of ingredients across the menu reflects Albertson’s years in the kitchen at the erstwhile Cakewalk Café, where chef Deb Paquette—now owner of Zola restaurant—clearly imparted a passion for combining flavors and textures. The warm lump crab salad with sweet hunks of crabmeat, Gorgonzola, fennel and toasted pine nuts—arguably the best thing at Sofie’s—recalls Paquette’s French Laundry, a mélange of arugula, radicchio, diced green apples, toasted hazelnuts, Stilton and cured orange peel.

“I have people say, ‘I can still see Deborah in you,’ ” Albertson says of his mentor. But the nascent Sofie’s, which opened on Dec. 1, still lacks the consistency of execution and attention to detail that distinguish Paquette’s nationally acclaimed Zola.

On our first visit, steamed mussels in a beer broth arrived in a thick reduction so bitter and salty that we left it in the bowl rather than soaking it up with the accompanying toast points. The marquee flavors of basil and anise drowned in the lamb, and small, overcooked scallops detracted from a delicate and intriguing presentation with Parmesan coulis and prosciutto crisps. On two occasions, the crab salad arrived with pale orange sections in lieu of the more exotic—and expensive—blood oranges that the menu promised. And all too often, frozen vegetables detracted from the preparation of fresh, high-quality meats.

Albertson could better showcase his talents by designing dishes with seasonally available products. (Don’t dilute a juicy breast of grilled duck with niblets of frozen corn.) Or he could easily edit his menu when critical items aren’t available. There’s no point in mentioning blood oranges if you don’t have them on hand—or worse, making a stingy first impression with miserly scallops that can’t handle the heat.

Fortunately, Albertson, a 24-year veteran of the restaurant business, has been quick to address such start-up stumbles. Our second dinner—just two weeks after the first—already reflected nimble adjustments.

“We’re still in the process of finding what people want and what we can produce,” Albertson says. For example, the original basil-anise lamb suffered as a consequence of selling more than expected the prior night and not having sufficient time to marinate a new batch. On our second visit, the lamb carried the flavors more boldly. Furthermore, days after our first visit, an appetizer of gorgeous pan-blackened shrimp—the size of small lobsters—replaced the scallops. The mussels also rolled off the menu quickly, replaced by a spanakopita (phyllo pastry with spinach and feta cheese)—a nod to Darsinos’ Greek heritage.

Other recent menu additions include chicken Sofia, with pepper-jack cheese, whipped potatoes, grilled squash and lime-shiitake velouté; and pasta printemps, tossed with pulled chicken, julienned vegetables and Parmesan-basil coulis and topped with fried portobello ravioli. After experimenting with several variations of cheesecake, Albertson’s wife Ann-Margaret, who makes the desserts, has settled on an Oreo version to round out the offerings of tres leches cake, carrot cake and crème brûlée.

Albertson plans to change the menu every few weeks, and the approaching growing season—with its increased availability of fresh vegetables—will likely benefit his creative intentions.

For now, the excellent ginger-lemongrass grilled salmon remains, while the duck will migrate off this week to make room for a venison dish.

At a price point below many of the high-flying restaurants in town, Sofie’s soon could become a favored dinner spot in the swelling community where Williamson, Davidson and Rutherford Counties meet. And Sunday brunch—a rare find—will likely draw from well beyond the burgeoning Tusculum church crowd. But the question remains: can Sofie’s mature into a dining destination that lures city folks south for supper? Albertson is off to a good start in the kitchen, and Darsinos is creating a welcoming vibe. As long as Sofie’s continues to make strides, travelers won’t be disappointed when they arrive.


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