Sophie’s Grill & Bar owner Desy Nikolova brings Old World family recipes to her Cary restaurant
Sophie’s Grill & Bar opened last November, just a few months after West Park Tavern closed at that location after a six-year run. If returning regulars were surprised to find a new restaurant had taken its place when they pulled into the strip mall parking lot, they were in for more surprises once they stepped inside.
Sure, the long, curved bar is still there, with its bank of flat screens overhead. And the draft beer offering is still a prime draw, with 22 taps dispensing local craft brews.
But the impressive whiskey selection — nearly a hundred labels, mostly bourbon — is gone, and with it the leather sofas and masculine vibe of the place. Now, the walls are painted a soft dove gray and dozens of vintage photos of notable women, from Elizabeth Taylor to Sally Ride, are hanging.
Cushioned red banquettes have replaced the austere black wood-slat benches lining those walls. Lace doilies are draped over a partition wall, and fresh flowers have joined the condiments and sugar packets on the tabletops. And what’s this, a salad bar? In a sports pub?
The menu holds more surprises in store. The selection of traditional pub fare is limited, though if you’re looking for some wings to gnaw on while you watch your team in action, you won’t go away hungry. Wisconsin cheese curds, served with a marinara dipping sauce, are another winning option.
Burgers are a solid bet, too. The menu lists nearly a dozen variations on the theme, from bison to the Beyond veggie burger. The Olympic burger, topped with bacon, American cheese, “crispy onion rings” (recently replaced by tobacco onions) and BBQ sauce, should scratch the itch for an all-American ground beef burger.
For my money, though, My Big Fat lamb burger — ground fresh, grilled to order, and topped with melted feta — is the star of the show. And a side of Sophie’s exemplary classic cut fries are a must.
The Greek-accented burger also happens to hint at what makes Sophie’s stand out: a separate menu section labeled “Bringing Old World Favorites to the Heart of North Carolina.” In that section, owner Desy Nikolova shares a few dishes from her native Bulgaria and other nearby countries from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Regardless of origin, Nikolova’s homespun style of cooking yields food that make you feel like you’re not eating in a restaurant, but at the home of a friend.
It doesn’t get any closer to home for Nikolova than chicken Nikoloff. Named for her father, who created the recipe, the dish features grilled chicken breast on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with a mushroom cream sauce. Nikolova sometimes offers a variation featuring salmon over angel hair pasta. Both versions are accompanied by steamed asparagus.
Lamb shanks, slow-cooked with carrots, garlic, white wine and olive oil, and served with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, are first-rate. The hearty dish is only offered occasionally, though, and will likely appear less frequently on the specials menu during warm weather. If it’s available when you’re there, consider it your lucky day.
Nikolova substitutes ground turkey for the traditional beef or lamb in her moussaka, seasoning it with cinnamon and layering it with zucchini, potatoes, eggplant and béchamel for a lighter take on the Greek classic. The moussaka was somewhat dry when I sampled it, and I’m guessing the lack of fat in the turkey is the culprit. A generous dollop of yogurt served on the side goes a long way toward remedying the flaw.
The self-taught Nikolova sticks with the time-honored blend of ground beef, lamb and rice, however, for her stuffed cabbage rolls. It’s a hearty, satisfying dish, even if the “picante Hungarian sauce” doesn’t strike a Westerner’s palate as particularly picante.
That doesn’t stop her from venturing into the New World for inspiration. She’ll proudly inform you that her croquettes, crisp golden brown orbs filled with a creamy melange of potato, ham and Swiss cheese, are inspired by Cuban croquetas.
Nikolova occasionally features a wild caught North Carolina shrimp ceviche, tossed with a colorful confetti of mango, cucumber, serrano and jalapeño peppers, red onion, tomatoes and cilantro. Regrettably, the presentation was marred by a too-lengthy marinade in citrus juices when I ordered it.
But you won’t often be disappointed, whatever you order — as long as you set your expectations for the Old World Favorites to “home-cooked” rather than “formally-trained-chef.”
That the pub fare comes off as more polished and professional isn’t surprising, given that Nikolova also owns Desy’s Grill & Bar in Morrisville. Desy’s has been going strong for eight years, and Nikolova staffed Sophie’s in part with loyal employees of that well-established sports bar. The wisdom of that decision shows in the kitchen as well as the dining room, where Nikolova’s ebullient warmth appears to be contagious among the wait staff.
You might even call her new restaurant a spinoff of the old one. Just bear in mind that, while Sophie’s (the name is a nod to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria) is just five miles down the road from Desy’s, its spirit is thousands of miles away.
Sophie’s Grill & Bar
2734 N.C. 55, Cary
Cuisine: eclectic mix of American pub fare and Old World classics
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: upscale casual
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and enthusiastic
Recommended: croquettes, cheese curds, burgers, lamb shank
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.