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For years, Nadine's was a quiet favorite of the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland. Recently, though, it has metamorphosed into Sophie's, operating under the guidance of new chef/owner Alexander Baccarat, who worked with the owner of Nadine's and seems to be keeping the faith. The changes are perceptible but not major: The interior is a little fancier, with white tablecloths and a slightly less casual ambience. The chill that was an occasional deterrent to eating at Nadine's has been banished, evidently by the simple expedient of turning on the heat. The cuisine is similar enough to that of Nadine's that it won't shock a regular, but the Cal-French rheostat has been edged closer to the French side of the meter, with rusticism losing a little ground to refinement.
It's a long, thin restaurant, decorated in sunny yellow. The kitchen is visible through steamy plate glass at the back, like a cheerful Reptile House exhibit, while a welcoming atmosphere is generated partly by the professional but very friendly staff, who brief you on what's good (everything, typically) and are extremely accommodating.
The wine list includes many good choices from France and California, as well as a few excellent bottles that will make any special occasion a very special occasion. The menu is compact but efficient -- there are only five entrees, but it's still difficult to choose. Baccarat is a master of balance, uniting several disparate ingredients in a dish, but managing to keep the proportions of flavor perfectly tuned, so that no element does more or less than is called for, or ever oversteps its bounds. This kind of control gets some chefs in trouble -- their ingredients, each under strict orders, stand with their arms crossed and their backs to one another, creating dishes without harmony whose several tasty parts lack a satisfactory gestalt. Baccarat doesn't have that problem, because although his flavors are subtly balanced, they meld and embrace each other wholeheartedly, retaining their integrity but gladly cooperating in the group effort.
An example is the seafood stew ($16). Pieces of mild sea bass, heartier salmon, and meaty andouille sausage share a tomato-based bath of medium density. The sausage is smoky and very spicy, but the subtlety of the seasoning (no big dark roux here) and the calming presence of very fresh and flavorful fish make that piquancy just one note in a complex composition, and clearly set the dish apart from any gumbo that might have similar components.
A potato leek soup starter ($4.75) is also remarkably eloquent. Often, ordering potato leek soup is just a euphemistic way of inviting a vat of cream to sit on your table. Many restaurants' luxurious soups have a rich, round flavor, but rarely an interesting one -- the flavors of the leek and the potato are smoothed so much by butter and cream as to lose their character. The soup at Sophie's is sufficiently rich, yes, but it remembers its roots: It has a vegetal leek flavor that's not merely detectable, but delectable, and the potato is not liquefied, but puréed just enough that tasty minuscule pieces of potato are present.
Ravioli is another dish in which many errors can be hidden by a rich sauce and a rich filling. Baccarat, however, triumphs through care and subtlety. His ravioli ($12) are saffron-colored rounds that sit in a light, negligibly tomatoey sauce. They are not the unquestioned stars of the dish, though. Their environment is flavored by an abundance of lightly braised vegetables -- zucchini is prominent -- that are on almost equal footing with the ravioli. If the ravioli were removed the dish would become a wholly satisfactory light vegetable stew. But the ravioli must not be removed! Each is carefully constructed, filled with a thin layer of salty, mild, chewy cheese flavored with onion and paprika -- much like Liptauer, a companion noted. Shreds of dark, bitter chard run through the cheese, intensifying the contrast between inside and outside. To some palates, this dish may want a little salt; fortunately, there is a dispenser of it on the table.
Though Baccarat is skilled at engineering subtleties of flavor, he also possesses the converse skill: When a dish has good built-in flavor, he knows how to stand back and let it do its thing. The lamb tenderloin ($18), for example, has marvelous flavor, so Baccarat just grills it medium, slices it, and dresses it with a quietly intense demi-glace sweetened by pomegranate. The meat is accompanied by the same delicious braised vegetables that grace the ravioli, and a healthy helping of mashed potato, which, like the soup, is rich but maintains a fresh, distinct potato flavor and texture.
Seafood beignets ($6.50) are perfectly greaseless and light, and contain excellent, mild-fleshed fish. They are highlighted by a tarragon aioli. These are a very good way to start, and not bad to share. In fact, if you're sharing starters, get the croutons ($6.50) too. Half of these tiny toasts are covered with a marvelous goat cheese, thick, creamy, and pungent without any chalkiness; the other half with duxelles, the marvelous flavor base that rarely makes it out of the kitchen unadulterated. It consists of minced shallot and mushroom, cooked in butter until it coheres. It is wonderfully rich in flavor, and typically is added to sauces instead of standing on its own, as it does here quite respectably, offering a light, graceful substitute to the pâté or rillettes that might often be seen in this role. The croutons come with a delicious vinegary salad of white beans.
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