A Sashay Through Sonsie

Newbury Street's pretentious hot-spot delivers on style, misses on food

Sonsie is not for wan women or frail society ladies of delicate constitutions. This is a frantic nest of raucousness, but also a colorful pageant of the elegant and the dodgy, offering a dining experience which demands that you contend with outlandish decor, menu exotica and a congested and tortuous layout.

First, there’s the front-of-house staff, who might be expected (not unreasonably) to station themselves at the front of the house. Instead, they’re practically cloistered from view, so far removed from the entrance that all diners must nimbly navigate themselves, un-ushered, past a dusky terrace of Parisian café tables oriented to face the sidewalk, just to get noticed and to have their application assessed. Those who’ve just popped in without a reservation should prepare for purgatory (but what a luxurious purgatory it is: Customers fidget on purposely distressed leather sofas while they anxiously await admission). All this entrance-intrigue is bathed in the lurid, erotic glow of red lamps clasped in the fangs of ornate snake-candelabra, or coyly veiled in rice paper (wasn’t it Woody Allen who used a red light bulb as a sexual expedient in Annie Hall?). On the far wall hang paintings of frolicking figures in prurient postures, Matissean dancers in revelry. Overhead, Starck-sleek fans of brushed steel revolve with drawing-room languor, conspicuously at odds with the clamor and chatter below. And diffusing throughout the room, holding the whole tenuously cohesive mess together, there is slinky drum-and-bass music to vegetate to.

Sonsie has partitioned itself, each domain comprising a distinctive sort of customer— stalwart males and their waifish dates cluster thickly round the bar counter, while just across the room, the prettily-preened parental-aged crowd repose in their exclusive, primly-upholstered preserve. The “café” section in the front is host to college-kid convocations and lovers’ trysts.

We order two martinis (both $9.50)—a Green Goose (Grey Goose orange, Cointreau, splash of sour apple, sugar rim) and a Chocolate Cherry (Stoli vanilla, Kahlua, amaretto, crème de cocoa, dash of grenadine). We laud the smooth, mellow acidity of the first and are revolted by the cluttered confusion of the second. Vanilla, coffee, almond, chocolate and red fruits jostling for attention? What a garbled gimmick.

The menu is American in the main, freshened up by Italian and Mexican accents and one or two playfully errant Oriental items (Vietnamese spring rolls, Thai crispy noodles). We start with sesame-crusted scallops with “My Favorite Stir Fry Green Beans” ($12), a rather pointless dish, ineptly executed. The scallops are parched and petrified by over-zealous heat, and the beans make a dubious accompaniment, sitting forlornly in a thin gingery broth. The other starter, however, is sensibly composed—the slick fatty warmth of grilled duck sausage and bruschetta slathered with pâté de foie gras, pointedly countered by tart pickled grapes ($10), each constituent equally prominent and clearly articulated.

Our main courses are deeply perplexing. The less confused of the two, honey soy roast duck ($19.50), turns out to be a Chinese confit-magret combo; the breast is just a smidgen too toothy and dried out, but the candied leg proves to be a seductive, swirling mouthful of fat and flesh, judiciously flavored. The other is a reckless cross-cultural misadventure ($23). The grilled swordfish is crumbly and again drained of moisture, with a peripheral dollop of mysterious root vegetable looking sheepish and impertinent. It comes with crab-stuffed flautas (crispy rolled tortillas) whose flavor is completely dominated by the pastry. I must confess a personal aversion to Mexican food (oh the traumas of refried—and refried again—beans, mulchy salsas and guacamoles), and this only confirmed my prejudice.

Desserts ($7), fortunately, are an unequivocal triumph. A frozen hillock of an espresso soufflé nestles squarely on a hazelnut dacquoise (meringue) base in a beautiful pairing of satiny sludge and airy crunch. Next we try a triptych of variations on an apple: “moist” honeyed apple cake (which it is eminently not—more like chewing a stiffened wholemeal loofah), spiced cider sorbet of unusually whirly consistency, and a baked whole apple with a scalding molten core of gravelly brown sugar-magma.

Sonsie belongs to that genre of performance-art, destination dining, where substance is subordinated to style. For an uproarious night out, it has irresistible charm; it’s a magnet for the dalliances of Bright Young Things and aged courtships alike. (How the latter is possible is beyond me, though, as the ambient volume is quite vexing to proper conversation.) But is this now really such an aberrant phenomenon? Voguish restaurants need to be this protean: People want old-fashioned quality and intimacy but also flash and flutter, a measured balance of familiarity and novelty, romantic hideaways secreted amidst convivial bustle. Sonsie is exactly that sprawling, radiant paradox. Who really gives a damn about the food anymore?

Sonsie

327 Newbury St.

Boston

(617) 351-2500

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