Not that anyone would expect this to signal a radical change in the restaurant's sophisticated Mediterranean fare: This is not a vanity kitchen, after all, where new talent strives to remake the menu in its own image. Tradition still stands proud, and Sans Souci is not now serving Asian hand rolls, tapas, or in-your-face fusion fare -- any of the trendy tidbits that distinguish our more contemporary, chef-driven spots. Stainless steel and neon haven't usurped the soothing Provençal decor. White linens still predominate. And the typically formal but friendly waitstaff hasn't suddenly taken to black turtlenecks and multiple body piercings. At least not that we were able to discern . . .
Instead, nearly everything seems, on the surface at least, much as it has always been. Slices of homemade baguette still come to the table with little pots of rustic tapenade, humming with the sunny flavors of dried tomato, kalamata olive, roasted red pepper, garlic, and anchovy. The popular lobster bisque is still rich and pink, although perhaps the flavor of the superior lobster broth is not now quite so overshadowed by the heavy cream. Grilled beef and roasted lamb, osso bucco and veal medallions are still menu mainstays.
But look a little deeper, and you can distinguish les différences. The large dinner menu is nowadays divided into two smaller menus, one titled La Tradition and the other The New Classics. The first is where you find the venerable lobster bisque; the second has an extraordinary carrot-leek-and-apple soup -- a deep confluence of the sweet and the savory, brushed with a faint suggestion of vanilla and what seems like rivulets of butter.
The first menu is also home to a fully functional Italian-style fried calamari. But the second menu is where you look for the daring Tuna Tartare: silken dice of raw tuna topped with a sophisticated, slightly crunchy celery-root rémoulade and ringed with a bracing relish of chopped capers, anchovies, and kalamata olives.
And the first menu is where you'll find an entirely lovely wood-grilled tenderloin of beef, resting on a cloud of lightly mashed new potatoes, sided with a few pencil-thin haricots verts, and kissed with a bit of red-wine sauce. But the second menu serves up a knock-your-socks-off grilled veal loin, dusted with cracked peppercorns and settled on an outrageously delicious ragoût of braised cabbage and smoked bacon, along with petite glazed carrots and a drizzle of a simply shattering Marsala reduction. The difference? Like a navy-blue wool-flannel suit from Ralph Lauren versus a faille tuxedo from Lorenzo Latini.
Beyond nudging the kitchen in more innovative directions, Stein also seems to have renewed the staff's commitment to excellence. In a review of Sans Souci that we wrote nearly a year and a half ago -- before the new talent took over -- we despaired over several of the kitchen's shortcomings. Among the disappointments were a tragically dull cold vegetable terrine of undercooked eggplant, red pepper, yellow squash, and zucchini; and a disappointingly bland yet inexcusably tarted-up mélange of chopped honeydew melon, onion, and mint, underpinned by thinly sliced prosciutto and topped with a tossed salad of mixed greens, sour out-of-season tomato, and oily dressing. But on recent visits, both preparation and quality of ingredients -- pristine gourmet veggies and micro greens from Erie County's Chef's Garden, for example -- were without flaw. Roasted chicken, its fragile skin bejeweled with snappy herbes de Provence (rosemary, thyme, sage, and lavender), was impeccably moist and tender. Perfectly prepared sweetbreads, in a fine, crisp breading, were breathtaking layered on a bed of finely diced, aromatic carrot, celery, onion, bacon, and fresh bay leaf. A "parfait" of roasted, cooled, and finely chopped Provençal vegetables -- eggplant, zucchini, red and green pepper, tomato, garlic, and a bit of black olive puree -- was a revelation, with its robust flavor and delicate texture perfectly set off by a ring of extra-virgin olive oil and a soupçon of mild whipped goat cheese. And seared pork tenderloin -- so rosy and tender it nearly made us weep -- was exactly right with its accompaniment of "melted" leeks and oyster mushrooms, and a bit of savory red-pepper tapenade.
A large assortment of housemade desserts (created by Pastry Chef William Fazekis -- formerly of Piccolo Mondo, where he worked with Stein) includes all the classics, like raspberry crème brûlée, tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake, and Sans Souci's popular caramelized lemon custard, served on a thin layer of angelfood cake and sauced with raspberry coulis. While a crunchy-crusted blueberry crostada was too sugary for our tastes, we adored Fazekis's frozen vanilla soufflé: a pearly island floating in an ocean of beautiful and intensely flavored red-raspberry puree, all garnished with whipped cream and thinly sliced almonds. "You'll have to invent a new word for this," swooned a dining companion. "It goes so far beyond 'delicious.'"
The restaurant has an impressive wine list, with several pages of West Coast, French, Italian, and German selections, including a lengthy "captain's list" and a smaller but still comprehensive selection of wines by the glass. But while the prices of dinner entrées -- most pegged at less than $25 -- are reasonable by downtown standards, wine and cocktail prices are très cher, with Jepson Viognier (retailing for less than $15 a bottle), for example, set at $7.75 a glass and a smallish Tanqueray 10 martini going for $7.25.
Other quibbles include lighting that seemed too bright for the otherwise romantic dining room and that frequent shortcoming -- inconsistent service. For instance, one night's server was a charming professional, with a gentle demeanor and impeccable manners. The other night's server seemed less refined, peering at us dourly as we ordered the Tuna Tartare. "You do know what that is, don't you?" she asked, as if we were a toddler caught with a mouthful of worms. Her brusqueness took us off guard, and we wondered if she had spotted hayseeds in our hair. Of course, in her defense, we know it's not unheard of for clueless diners to send tartares back to the kitchen with the request that they be cooked, so we readily admit that the "sophistication" knife can cut both ways. But perhaps she could have found a more genteel way to phrase her question.
Still, under Stein's guidance, the food at Sans Souci is now so precise, so focused, and so intensely flavorful that we might be willing to eat it served by chimpanzees, off paper plates, beneath the glare of klieg lights. Change isn't automatically for the better, but in this case, it certainly has been: The food at this perennial four-diamond dining room now finally seems worthy of its reputation.
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