When something has been out of fashion for too long, it can boomerang and become valued all over again. In the Evans Churchill neighborhood at the north end of downtown Phoenix, decades of clear cutting have finally yielded to a desire to preserve what is left of the original housing stock. At the same time, vinyl records, once thought to have been replaced by compact discs and then digital downloads, have made a comeback among audiophiles. Finally, French cuisine, wrongly stereotyped as stuffy and heavy, seems to be gaining renewed enthusiasm.
All three of these so-out-they’re-in phenomena intersect at Sottise, a restaurant that respects French culinary traditions while presenting them in a contemporary context. The location for this nexus of retro-modernistic trends is the lovingly renovated Leighton G. Knipe House, recently restored to its former glory after decades of neglect. The Knipe House faces Second Street on a rapidly revitalizing block between Roosevelt and Portland streets, just two blocks from the Roosevelt/Central light rail station. Bike racks are found just down the street at Roosevelt.
A gate leads to a walkway that bisects the restaurant’s patio, a shaded spot that is popular in mild weather. Inside, a small dining room is characterized by natural wood and brick. The vintage vinyl aspect of the restaurant is expressed through music played on a turntable often tended by a live DJ. The speakers over the restaurant’s small bar are set at reasonable volumes that allow appreciation without inhibiting conversation. On a recent evening, the classic jazz guitar of Kenny Burrell and Grant Green yielded to R&B and soul as the evening progressed.
Sottise’s contemporary approach means a menu with many small plates and a strong emphasis on seafood. That focus on aquatic origins is evident at the top of the menu, where raw or chilled items are featured. The crab salad is representative of the kitchen’s approach, adding little to the abundant crustacean meat and letting it speak for itself when spread on the accompanying crackers. The least expensive option is a simple serving of boquerones, or marinated anchovies, while high rollers can feast on caviar or the imposing Sottise Tower combination.
Salmon is offered not as a typical fish entree, but instead in the form of a rillettes, a preparation made via slow cooking in a method similar to a confit with the result being close to a pate, but with a more coarse texture. The spreadable salmon is presented with a crusty baguette, something that can and should be ordered on its own to go with just about everything on the menu, especially the escargots. Despite living on land, snails are classified as mollusks, often viewed as seafood, and they benefit from a simple, classic presentation in pools of garlic butter.
Turning to other land-based ingredients, deviled eggs are another classic appetizer dressed up with capers, a bit of crispy pork, and a smooth sauce in the style of a remoulade. Onion soup is full of aromatics in a traditional veal broth that is appropriately seasoned but not excessively salty. Croutons and melted cheese that overflows the vessel make this bowl a warming and satisfying reaffirmation of tradition. A lighter touch is felt with the little gem salad topped with curls of shaved cheese and enhanced with haricots verts, sliced radishes, and pistachios.
At Sottise, there’s no hard boundary between appetizers and entrees. It’s often possible simply to share several rounds of small plates until satiated. Nevertheless, the further one goes towards the bottom of the menu, the more the items, which sometimes change seasonally, resemble traditional main dishes. For winter, some hearty options have included short rib bourguignon with tender beef in a wine sauce with pureed potatoes and root vegetables, duck breast seasoned with a classic Chinese five-spice blend, and a rich whole lobster Thermidor.
Among the seafood, duck, and beef, there is a pesto pasta dish that can serve as a worthwhile vegetarian entree, or as a shared side dish or a “primi” in keeping with the Italian concept of pasta before a main dish. Not a mere meatless afterthought, the flat noodles are enveloped in an assertive but light sauce heavy on umami from basil, pistachio, and Grana Padano cheese. While this pasta has been a constant on the menu, desserts will vary depending on ingredients. A fruit galette is always offered and featured nectarines, plums, and blackberries when sampled.
A chocolate tart is a bit of a misnomer and a letdown. Without the delicate pastry of the galette, it’s really more of a flourless chocolate cake. As such, it’s serviceable for those who crave cacao but not distinctive in comparison to similar desserts found all over town. The cocktails at Sottise focus heavily on gin as the basis of light aperitifs like the Bright Eyes with grapefruit and tonic. Other spirits find their way into drinks like the Sommer with tequila and herbal notes of rosemary and turmeric and the Cowboy, which combines mezcal and rye with flavors of cherry and walnut.
The wine list is 100% French with equal emphasis on white, red, and sparkling. In the last category, a bubbly rose, Moillard Crémant de Bourgogne Brut, seems to pair especially well with the seafood on the Sottise menu. Not long ago, it seemed like historic preservation was a lost cause, vinyl was a forgotten medium, and French cuisine was out of fashion. Thanks to Sottise, it’s now possible to enjoy wine, cocktails, seafood, and a crusty baguette while listening to jazz and soul that has never gone out of style in a house that has finally been brought back to life.
1025 N. 2nd St., Phoenix AZ 85004