My partner and I entered Sofia, the dairy restaurant in Jerusalem's upscale Inbal Hotel, on a gusty September evening, with an expectant palate and an open mind, and, indeed, the surprises on the menu ultimately proved to be for the most part pleasant and satisfying. The restaurant is designed in a simple, warm style, presumably in order to cater to a clientele made up mostly of hotel guests - typically older US Jews with means. Still, my design-conscious partner felt that although in good taste the decor was a bit on the conservative side and opined that the setting wasn't intimate enough to attract members of the younger persuasion.
We were seated at a small table to the side, where we were promptly treated to a crispy focaccia with melted Parmesan. Although the hors d'oeuvres were fairly standard fare, we both agreed that the sun-dried tomato spread was worth a double dip. The star of the first course was definitely a tomato ravioli with mozzarella on the inside - a pleasant play on a time-honored tradition that truly delighted with a flash of balsamic goodness. The gazpacho was also nice and smooth, but even with the added crunch from the parmesan croutons it couldn't quite measure up to the tasty bits curled up in the inside-out tomato ravioli. Nevertheless, our attention was piqued.
Next to grace our plates was, interestingly enough, another ravioli dish, which eschewed deconstruction for a more muted delivery, with the artichoke hearts on the inside this time. My partner felt that salt was slightly lacking, but I tended to disagree, noting the nicely balanced tang provided by the artichoke. The mushrooms in cream sauce and white wine were tasty but not the height of inspiration.
And then came the eggplant soup, brimming with foamy mushroom mousse and salmon tartar - a delightful dish, as even my surprised partner, who rarely heaps such warm praise on smoked morsels, agreed. There was a moment of discord, however, as she and I diverged over whether or not the delicious soup had any tehina in it. When Chef Itzik Barak next emerged from the kitchen for one of his frequent saunters into our corner of the dining area we asked him to settle the question and he asserted - to my disappointment - that there was no sesame in the mix. Still, I wasn't going to allow the lingering impression of the soup on my palate to be overpowered by the taste of defeat.
The main dish consisted of two fish: A sea bass with a polenta base and shallots, and a filet of salmon with Jerusalem artichoke and radishes. The salmon - and on this we were of a single mind - was cooked to perfection, and the artichoke gave a tasty seasonal touch to an already tender slice. The sweetness from the shallots also complemented the bass but my partner was again left with the feeling that another dash of salt was in order. The radishes on the side, we both sensed, were a superfluous flourish.
For dessert we shared three flavors of sorbet - strawberry, mango and coconut milk - on a bed of exotic fruits, and a soothing green tea infusion. All in all, we were quite pleased with the cool sorbet - especially the strawberry, which managed to stay true to its fruity roots without being overly sweet.
The meal left us both quite satisfied, but still, as we left the by-then totally empty restaurant at about 9:30 p.m., we again worried that the establishment was missing out on a younger, more vibrant clientele. As it stands, Sofia seems to be settling for hotel guests and their occasional grandchildren. Surely, such fine fare merits a broader client base.