Restaurant News & Reviews

Sono makes over Japanese eatery

Forget the stereotype of the Japanese restaurant as an austere shoji-screened temple of tradition.

Everything about Sono is chic, from its fashionable Fayetteville Street location to the sultry red backlit glow of the bar just inside the entrance, where the see-and-be-seen set sip pomegranate martinis and draft Blue Moons.

Behind the bar, a sexy wall-spanning mural of a reclining woman reaching for an orchid overlooks a sleekly modern dining room and sushi bar.

Even the restaurant's name is a nod to stylishness. "Sono" is Japanese for "the" -- as in "the place to be," according to owners G. Patel (he goes by the initial) and Mike Lee. Patel established his trendsetter cred as owner of Mura in North Hills. Lee, formerly chef and sushi chef at Mura, now oversees both the sushi bar and the kitchen at Sono. His take on the Japanese repertoire, expressed in an ambitious offering of small plates, entrees and a mix of traditional and modern sushi presentations, is every bit as stylish as the setting. And with few exceptions, his presentations back up that style with substance, in the form of skillful execution and inventiveness grounded in experience.

Lee's small plate presentation of yellowtail sashimi, each piece of fish topped with a petal-thin slice of jalapeño and drizzled with shichimi-spiced ponzu sauce, is one delightful example of the chef's talents. Spicy tuna cocktail, which serves up diced raw fish and cherry tomatoes in a creamy Sriracha-tinged dressing over daikon threads, is another. In Lee's hands, even the humble seaweed salad gets jazzed up in a pairing with mesclun in a Japanese mustard vinaigrette.

Tempura calamari comes oh-so-close to the mark, the squid rings tender and the batter light but a shade less crisp than ideal. Lee serves the calamari with a dip based on his signature Screaming O sauce, which might best be described as Japanese spicy mayo on steroids. Full strength, the sauce adds a pungent kick to the Screaming O roll (spicy tuna and tempura shrimp inside, seared tuna on top), one of more than 30 house specialty rolls.

Sono's selection of nigiri sushi and sashimi is among the most comprehensive around, and includes local rarities such as whelk clam and sea water eel, as well as seven tuna variations, including both fatty tuna (chu toro) and fatty tuna belly (o toro). The sushi I've sampled has been fresh across the board, although knife skills vary considerably among those working behind the sushi bar. To be fair, I encountered this inconsistency on a busy Saturday night when Lee was joined by three assistants, all working feverishly to keep up with incoming orders.

According to Lee, Sono's sushi bar has accounted for a larger than expected share of sales since the restaurant opened in February. In an effort to balance things out, the chef is revising his menu to encourage more orders from the kitchen. Temptations on the new appetizer list, due out in the next week or two, will include red snapper carpaccio with ponzu sauce, braised pork belly with wasabi grits, and mussels in garlic sake broth. Entree enticements will include pan-seared duck breast with plum chile sauce, oxtail braised in a mirin soy broth, and rib-eye with a wasabi ginger glaze. Entire new sections will be devoted to noodle dishes, vegetarian specialties, and low-fat dishes with under 450 calories.

Sadly, the butter-poached lobster tail with a saffron tofu cream sauce I enjoyed recently is a casualty of the changes. But the translucent-skinned pork gyoza, served in a pancetta-studded tomato cream sauce streaked with a contrasting cinnamon-tinged balsamic reduction, thankfully remains. So does the impeccable pan-seared sea bass, though its soulful truffle soy reduction is slated to be replaced by a mango soy reduction.

Once people have tasted the likes of these dishes, I'm betting chef Lee won't need much arm-twisting to convince them that Sono is "the place to be" for more than just sushi.