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Sophia's kitchen picks up the beat

I don't usually associate dining with Latin dance clubs, so although I knew of Sophia's, across the street from Fenway Park, I hadn't thought of it as a potential restaurant review. Several months ago, though, Jeffrey Fournier took over as chef and created a new menu, and I put Sophia's on my sometime-in-the-future to-do list.

Then I got a push from an unexpected source: Jacky Robert, the authoritative French chef now at Chatham Bars Inn on the Cape, who raved about Fournier's food and liquor pairings and how the combinations brought out unexpected nuances of flavor. Sophia's shot to the top of my list.

Good thing, too. Despite restaurant claims, "new" is overrated, and most menus and dishes settle into the tried and true. Fournier, though, who worked at Excelsior and Locke-Ober among other restaurants, actually has something new, and he's not afraid to experiment with both flavor and form. The results are creative and mostly delicious.

Fournier begins small and mostly stays that way. Although tapas have swept through contemporary dining, these little dishes are really more like intricate appetizers, usually with protein, starch, and vegetable on the same plate. Fournier, in a telephone interview, is quick to say that he stays close to the origins of the dishes, mostly from Central and South America. The amount of work involved is obvious on the little plates and from the sight of the young cooks flying around the kitchen, which is visible from the dining room.

One evening we begin with one of the food-and-liquor pairings: a salad of watercress and preserved lemon accompanied by lemoncello, one of the liqueurs made in the restaurant and stored in big glass jars on the bar. The waiter tells us to take a bite of food and then a sip of liqueur. Lemon upon lemon, I think, but then am intrigued by the way the sharpness of the watercress plays off the salty bite of the preserved lemon. The lemoncello has a citrus flavor, of course, but a roundness, too, softening the edges of the salad. Aguardiente -- an anise-flavored Colombian rum -- is matched to wafer-thin slices of cured snapper, orange segments, and a swirl of cilantro oil. There are a lot of different elements here, and I like the play of sweet-sour orange against the clean taste of the cured fish. The anise flavor in the liquor, though, is a bit distracting.

Mini plates are less challenging, tiny in portion, and less layered in flavors, but nevertheless satisfying. Arepas, grilled corn cakes found in several South American cuisines, are rich with cheese and slathered with mango butter. They're irresistible, one of several dishes we're tempted to order in multiples. A chicken liver terrine is an elegant little creation, smooth and buttery over Sophia's grilled bread, spiked with a dot or two of red chili paste.

The real artistry shows best in the larger "small" plates. The center heart of romaine, lightly grilled so the edges are toasty, boasts plenty of garlic, a few fat shrimp, and the play of sweet against spicy in the vinaigrette, grapes, and a finishing swirl of chipotle aioli. A little casserole of chicken sancocho, another dish typical to several Latin cultures, is a soothing stew with cubes of potatoes, chunks of chicken, and other vegetables in a thin, savory sauce. Fournier plays off the affinity of pork and shellfish by matching a single large sea scallop, its surface carmelized brown and crisp, with a thick slice of chicarron, a delicious meaty bacon marbled with fat. This dish includes thin arepas offset by mango. By the end of a few bites, you experience a whole symphony of tastes -- rich, sweet scallop, salty bacon, earthy corn, and a hit of sweetness.

Not every dish is so multifaceted but, again, no less enjoyable. You can make your own tacos from enchiladas and a mound of pork braised in beer and brown sugar. With a slightly sour cream over the top, the taco is classic Mexican -- and wonderful, another dish to make a meal of. Chorizo is split and grilled and served with a pickled cabbage salad, thin-sliced circles of coconut, and plantain chips -- all interesting textures and subtle tastes.

Menu specials vary. One evening a tasting of ceviches is offered. On some nights toward the end of the week, full entrees are added. We try salmon, very simply roasted, served with a seafood salad that has been marinated like a ceviche. With toasted bread underneath the salad, it's a light, yet very satisfying main course.

Sophia's has a full wine list but really specializes in Latin drinks, such as a beautifully made mojito with freshly crushed mint and sangria that actually tastes both of the fruit and the liquor without sugar overwhelming it all. Desserts are appealing in flavors and pretty to look at. A chocolate cake of the flourless variety satisfied any lingering sweet need, and coconut ice cream did the same. But the effort is obviously in the small plates, not the endings.

The atmospherics of dining at Sophia's, owned by the Lyons Group and famous both for music and its rooftop deck, can be viewed several ways. The room is cavernous, flanked by a mirrored bar, and rather rough-hewn, with brick walls, high ceilings, and dark wood. It could be called dramatic, or even sexy, with candles flickering and shadows bouncing off big, boldly patterned paintings by Fournier, the chef. But then the wall and ceiling paint sort of stops in one back corner; the kitchen is exposed through a back door, and the waiters, who are polite but look uneasy, can't quite remember whether to clear silverware each time or leave it for the next course. It's as though two restaurants are at work in one space: One has polished, very sophisticated, cutting-edge food with white table cloths, while the other is still in rehearsal, not sure whether it's a dance-club joint or a real restaurant.

However, taste trumps ambience in the end. Fournier's miniatures are well worth setting aside some of the conventions and formalities of dining.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from at

Atria Solid starSolid starSolid star 137 Main St, Edgartown. 508-627-5850. Bleu Solid starSolid star 7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee. 508-539-7907. Two resort restaurants appeal to year-round residents also. Atria's attention to detail and dedication to locally grown shows on the plate. Bleu's French heritage infuses the best dishes. (6/10/04) Grill 23 & Bar Solid starSolid star 1/2 161 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-542-2255. Crowds flock to this big restaurant with a luxe men's club look. The steaks, especially the fantastic Kobe ribeye cap, and seafood are attractions. But its popularity pulls in even more fans. (6/3/04)

The Federalist Bar Solid starSolid star 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar Solid starSolid star 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are every bit as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04) Salts Solid starSolid starSolid star 798 Main St., Cambridge. 617-876-8444. New owners bring new luster to this intimate spot near Central Square. Chef/co-owner Gabreil Bremer's style is sophisticated and his flavors true. And the whole duck is fantastic. (5/20/04) Scollay Square Solid star 1/2 21 Beacon St., Boston. 617-742-4988. This place has the feeling of old Boston (though the real Scollay Square was several blocks to the east). The best is steaks and chops in this friendly spot with outdoor seating. (5/13/04)Spire Solid starSolid starSolid star Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., Boston. 617-772-0202. young chef Gabriel Frasca, with his first kitchen, is wildly creative. He starts with French technique and then takes off with contemporary American energy. His finely crafted dishes are worth seeking out. (4/29/04) Terramia Solid starSolid star 1/2 98 Salem St., North End, Boston. 617-523-3112. A longtime favorite for inventive food in the North End brings in a new chef, Chris Bussell. He manages to embellish the new-wave Italian cuisine, keeping Terramia fresh and exciting. (4/22/04)

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