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Sophie's Bistro
700 Hamilton Street
Somerset, Middlesex County, New Jersey
(732) 545-7778

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com

Sequestered away in a former bowling alley, and sharing space -- and management -- with "The Den" nightclub, proprietor Peter Mack's Sophie's Bistro doesn't look terribly promising from the outside. But looks, as we know, can be incredibly deceiving... and that is surely the case here. Once across the threshold, you've entered an entirely different world... and a different country.

The charming interior is definitively French bistro: tin ceiling, subdued lighting, glass-topped tables clothed in pastel Provençal fabrics, walls adorned with family photographs & French posters, and large, shuttered windows that swing open to embrace the warmth of soft summer breezes. As you sit at the cozy, horseshoe-shaped bar, nursing a glass of wine or apéritif, haunting Gallic melodies waft gently from the sound system.

Sophie's is what a good bistro is all about: comfortably bustling accommodations, solid French fare, and reasonable tariffs. And when the patrons pile in -- and pile in they do -- it is obvious they know a good thing when they taste it. Does the food always hit the mark? No, not always... but it comes close enough in my book.

As you peruse the menu, replete with a printed list of daily specials (and prices), you are treated to crusty French bread and a ramekin of perfectly spreadable sweet butter. Surely an auspicious harbinger of the good things looming just over the horizon.

Among the appetizers, the "Specials of the House" hold sway. The tarte à la tomates ($5.75) is utterly profound in its apparent simplicity. Slices of plum tomatoes, shallots, tincture of Dijon mustard, and wedge of deliciously flaky pastry crust join forces to completely beguile the palate. And the very same may be said for the tarte a l'oignon ($7.50), which is embellished with anchovies and black olives. A classic in every respect.

Another highly recommended house specialty is the aubergine et fromage de chèvre ($8.50). This is, in reality, a Napoleon comprised of layers of warm, tender eggplant, creamy goat cheese, and plum tomatoes. A wonderful starter... as is the moules marinières ($12.75), plump, succulent mussels swimming in an incredibly addictive sauce of white wine, butter, and garlic.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about my recent visits to Sophie's was the excellent quality of the salads. The salade frisée ($8.75), for example, is absolutely all that it should be. The greenery, crowned with a poached egg, is feathery and appropriately bitter, the lardons are perfectly cooked, the house vinaigrette not too astringent, and the portion size just right. You might also try the salade de France ($8.75), a tangle of field greens awash with crumbled blue cheese and diced apples & walnuts; once again, the consummating touch is a marvelous vinaigrette.

When it comes to entrées, bear in mind that the kitchen has a way with fish. The sole ($19.50), for example, is sautéed and simply presented with a parsley lemon butter sauce and accompaniments of perfectly roasted lavender potatoes and crunchy harictos verts. The saumon eze ($17.50) is another seafood standout. A mustard-encrusted salmon filet is beautifully seared and arrives at table swimming in a marvelously complementary mustard herb sauce. The companion here is a luscious mound of sautéed spinach. If this item doesn't happen to be partnered with the main course of your choosing, be sure to order it as a side, as it is absolutely delicious ($4.50)... ditto the pommes frites ($4.00).

Another bistro favorite is the kitchen's tender and extremely flavorful takeoff on the traditional coq au vin ($15.75), which receives an extra kick from a perfect balance of white wine, lemon juice, and touch of cream. The boeuf Bourguignon ($16.75) -- mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, and pearl onions in a rich Burgundy wine sauce -- was also quite good, although several pieces of beef were on the dry side.

A menu constant among the daily printed specials is the sautéed calf's liver ($17.95). This is hardly a subtle presentation -- a thick slab topped with caramelized onions, bacon, and balsamic glaze -- but it is cooked just right (walking a delicate tightrope between medium and medium rare) and exhibits a velvety texture on the tongue. The accompanying mashed potatoes are slightly bland, but this proves just the proper counterpoint to the assertive balsamic.

Among the desserts, the tarte Tatin ($6.50) is good but not exceptional. On the other hand, the "Chocolate Sophie" ($8.00), a slowly baked rich chocolate cake with a melted semi-sweet chocolate center, is a caloric nightmare but extraordinarily delicious.

The classic lemon tart topped with powdered sugar ($6.50) sports a great crust, delightfully creamy consistency, and causes just the right amount of tumultuous tang on the tongue. Benchmark in every respect. And the special lemon curd Napoleon ($8.75), layers of lemon curd and fresh strawberries interspersed with tiers of delicately flaky pastry, is a delectable variation on the theme.

Sophie's also sports a compact, mostly French wine list with some very pleasant choices. Among the reds, my favorites include the highly quaffable Laforet Bourgogne Rouge ($7.50, glass; $28.00, bottle) and the Labouré Roi Vin Rouge ($17.00). When it comes to whites, I'd go for either the Château Sancerre ($9.75/$38.00) or the Graf Riesling Kabinett ($6.75/$25.00), an entry from Germany that delivers just the proper beguiling interplay of sweet/dry upon the palate.

I've always felt that restaurants should be judged on the basis of what they ARE not on the basis of what some professional hired belly would like them to be. Sophie's Bistro is a casual, bustling, neighborhood eatery that delivers up first-class French comfort fare at extraordinarily reasonable prices -- and that is a solid recommendation for any restaurant. If my wife and I resided in the area, there is absolutely no question that we would be settling in here several times a month.

Bon Appétit!

Cuisine: French Bistro
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in bar area only (which will change, of course, on April 15th).
Reservations: Recommended; essential on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.sophiesbistro.net

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