Dining and Entertainment diningandentertainment

Have I told ya about my girlfriend Soph?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014 tgoandco

Christmas shopping is not my favorite pass time. I am not a Scrooge, but my last travails through one menswear store made me think “funeral” as every item for the holiday was either black or grey. Waiting in line for a stressed-out cashier does nothing to put me in the holiday spirit. Voila — perfect solution. Lunch with Sophie. If you’re familiar with Bette Midler, you know all the jokes about Soph. Naming a restaurant Sophie's makes me think of bawdy jokes and off color humor. Not a bad thing to chuckle about while enjoying lunch in the winter.

The Sophie in question here is Sophie’s Restaurant nestled inside of Saks. Yes, the bastion of designer fashion goods has a restaurant that overlooks Michigan Avenue on the 7th floor. My philosophy of shopping? Your better clothing stores have a bar available to patrons so you don’t get sticker shock. Think the 7th Floor of Bergdorf’s in NY or the Walnut Room at Macy’s on State and you get the drift. John Varvatos in Soho will sling you beers if you buy enough. Those that remember Escada, remember getting slung champagne while shopping a sale. It’s a civilized way to shop. In this case, Sophie’s at Saks is named after Sophie Gimbel. Sophie was a fashion designer who astutely married Adam Gimbel, grandson of the owner of Gimbel’s department store. Gimbel’s and Saks merged in 1923. Stylish and opinionated, Sophie brought us the culottes — ok, not exactly a fan of those. She was the first American fashion designer to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Dior was also featured later. She was a heavy hitter of American fashion in the 40’s and 50’s. Because her collections were only available at Gimbel’s and Saks, she is not as well known as other fashion designers of the time. Her work is understated and modest yet elegant. She designed for Lady Bird Johnson. She wasn’t one to reveal a lot of skin. She was high-end but not a trendsetter, not like Claire McCardell who pioneered women’s sportswear.

Sophie and Adam Gimbel

Similar to Fred’s or RL, is upscale and sexy but more intimate. Like RL, there are some lovely black and white photos on the wall, but the d├ęcor is light and airy. Today, there is informal modeling from the Michael Kors’ fur collection truck show. I checked out the bargello-inspired mink. Sophie’s bar and restaurant open on to the menswear floor so one can shop then sip. When I say the restaurant is small, let me clarify. I think it sits about 60 people. I am told 88 with all the tables filled including those in the glass-enclosed private dining room. This room can be reserved for special occasions and also acts as over flow. During the holiday season, the restaurant is are featuring Veuve by the glass so there are lots of yellow labels floating around. Yes, this is civilized and decadent. If I have to shop for the holi-daze, this is the preferred way to do it. So what’s for lunch?

YEAH! They have a Prefix! Gotta love a prefix. Those three courses are kind of a nice way to stay on budget during the holiday season. The menu overall is varied and simple. There is something for most palettes. It is not heavy on steaks and chops even thought it’s in the menswear department. It is not heavy on vegetarian options but those that are on the menu are something most vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike will enjoy. I had a conversation with the Executive Chef Ron Aleman. He is sooooo flippin’ nice, so very personable and so very down to earth — he will also fill you in on the ingredients if you really want to know — hint hint. I opted out of the prefix to choose a variety of appetizers and some pasta. I worked up an appetite looking at fur but wanted variety. I ordered the naan flatbread, cornmeal dusted calamari and a crab cake.
The Naan Flatbread comes with curried squash, caramelized onions, mushrooms and ricotta cheese. It was modesty priced for what it was. The squash is cut into tiny chunks. There is a nice flavor mixture between the squash, mushrooms and onions. The cheese is gives it that feeling you get when you eat froi gras — it hits the savory, seductive side of the palette. Then I moved on to the calamari.
The Cornmeal Dusted Calamari was lightly dusted. It was not calamari that is coated with breading that soaks up grease. This coating adds texture without being heavy or gummy. The dish feels almost like grilled calamari as the breading is truly an afterthought to the calamari. It has a mix of chilies, lemon and scallions with a kim-chee remoulade as a sauce. It’s an unusual flavoring combo (kim-chee, lemon and squid) and works well. I wanted more, but the major hit of lunch was the crab cake.

Best crab cake I’ve had in my life.

No — I’m not kidding or blowing sunshine up your…  Not on the cheap side and no, you don’t get two. HOWEVER — it’s amazing. First, there are chunks of crab and I don’t mean small ones. This is crab and all crab. It comes with a tomato bisque sauce that doesn’t over power the crab. You taste crab and not a lot of breadcrumbs or filler. Some crab cakes are half breadcrumbs, egg or binders with the meat being shredded so you taste the crab flavor in a sea of breadcrumbs with very little crab. You get the essence of crab without actually eating it — kinda like faux butter on popcorn. Here, you get what you pay for — crab. Thus — I talked to Ron.  

“Talk to me about your crabs.” I said.

He chuckled as he knew where I was coming from. “I want a crab cake to have lots of crab. It doesn’t bother me if it falls apart coming to the table because it has so much crab in it. I use very little breadcrumbs, some spinach, mustard and a little bit of mayo but the major ingredient is crab. If you want I will tell you all the ingredient.” With that, we talked talking turkey. 

Did I ment to try the Turkey?

As I mentioned, Sophie has a variety of things on the menu. It does well with seafood. Seems like a food trend lately is to have some kind of lobster roll and that is on the menu too. However, it is close to Thanksgiving and I wanted to talk turkey and chef Ron got my attention. First he uses turkey breast only – so it’s all white meat. He also brines. For those who don’t know, this is the best way to keep this bird moist. Turkey can easily be dry and flavorless — like cardboard. Boiling it is like boiling a chicken, it gives you moisture but no flavor. The brining step allows the turkey to absorb moisture without drying it out. The roast gives flavor especially when it is slow cooked. It takes time — he brines for a day and a half.

 “Our Turkey is one of the most popular things on the menu. If we are not brining, we are roasting. We are constantly cooking turkey.” States Ron.

Brining the turkey breast only also means you don’t over cook the dark meat while trying to get the breast meat cooked. It is easier to regulate the temperature so you get consistently good turkey without dryness. He also starts it in a slow over it doesn't shock the bird.

“If you start a turkey in a slow oven, it doesn’t cause shrinkage and toughness. The meat is more relax and less shocked. I turn it up at the end to sear it.” Ron mentions.

So is it good? No — it’s great. It’s a wonderful sandwich. I was full on appetizers so I had to come back another day to try it. I’m glad I made the effort to come back. It was worth putting Sophie on the radar.

It’s not a food court

Things I liked about Sophie’s? The food is lovely and the room is small with a view that is lovely especially in the evening. I can have a conversation and feel almost like I am talking in private. This is a great pick for a romantic meal. Management dims the dining room lights and the tinkling lights of Michigan Avenue sparkle in. Sophie’s is perfect for pre-theater dinner as the store closes by the time you need to leave for theater. It would be smart to make a reservation for the evening or for lunch during the holiday season. If you are flexible with your schedule, you can easily get in for a late lunch and be leisurely about it. You will not feel rushed and the service is wonderful. It is a little pricey — hello, it is Saks. But it is not beyond the stratosphere. It is inline with what one would expect to pay at RL or Fred’s. Appetizers are a good deal. Most dinner entrees hover around $22 and appetizers are about $9 or $10. The crab is extra but worth it.

Do they sling a good cocktail?

Lunch without cocktails? What? Oh please — really? Do people do that? Even at breakfast you can have a bloody mary. So let’s chat booze. Try the Rhubarb and Grapefruit Mimosa with vodka and prosecco. That is a great flavor combo if you like tart. If you don’t like dry, pass it this way and have the Elderflower Bellini. It has a hint of peach without tasting like you just got bombed at the perfume counter. It is more on the sweeter side if you are not into dry and I like to think I am sweet enough. As mentioned, they are doing a Veuve special. Veuve is a favorite but I thought the price was a little out of range for Veuve for someone who shops at Binny’s. They have four other champagnes and sparklers by the glass that won’t give you sticker shock. Champagne is like potato chips – who stops at one glass? The mixed drinks were decently priced. I did notice they were two bucks less for lunch than dinner so go for a liquid lunch and save the cash. Nice wine list btw. They do not gouge for vino so drink up.

Note about farm to table. Yeah, I know that is a trend. Ron is not a stickler about it here but figure it out. It’s winter. You can’t get lettuce in a snow bank. Chef Ron does work to get produce within the region. Cheeses are from Wisconsin, etc. Last time I checked, Lake Michigan did not serve up seas scallops nor am I sure I would eat them if it did. Does he get heirloom tomatoes locally when in they are in season. He even has a beer called Sophie from Goose Island. You can’t get much more local than that. Planning a visit? Try the Prefix and drop me a line. Tell me what you think. My gutt says you will adore any of the entires from the prefixs menu — particularly the Squash Rissotto and the apple crisp.  One more thing — that mink that they were informally modeling? I take a size 42 short. Tis the season of giving — enjoy!

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