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Smith Street doesn’t need another restaurant. The block already has more bistros than one can find in a small city. However, a restaurant that functions as a comfortable, attractive room with an upscale diner menu is a novelty on this block.

Sonny’s Bar & Grill opened in March in a former antique store location. The eatery is an antidote to all the overwrought, fusion-smal plate-hyper stylish-bistros along the street.

Chef Merlin Tlapa, who spent seven years as the chef de cuisine at Pino Luongo’s tony Manhattan eatery Coco Pazzo, is the man behind the stove. His cooking is a far cry from the truffles and linguini served in his former establishment. At Sonny’s, Tlapa’s fare answers the craving for simple, familiar dishes.

That the food is served in a sophisticated, Mission-style room that invites diners to linger over their meals, adds to this unpretentious eatery’s appeal.

The room’s huge windows, simple stained-glass light fixtures and leather booths create a relaxed ambience that invites families to linger over their meal. In front of the restaurant, a graceful wrought iron fence circles an ample outdoor patio. The fence’s post allows diners some privacy with enough of a view to enable people watching.

As you’ve probably deduced, Sonny’s isn’t the place for innovative cooking. You visit when you’ve got a burger jones, want a good salad or tasty, meat-and-potatoes entrees with few surprises.

A half-order of fried calamari with sea salt and lemon was crisp and light and plenty for two people. Two dips - a fresh but pallid chunky tomato and a tangy tartar sauce - didn’t do as much for the dish as a squeeze of fresh lemon.

One of the more sophisticated items is a wild mushroom bisque subtly flavored with smoky red pepper. Tlapa uses a mix of cremini, shitake and silver bottom mushrooms in his dark, dense chunky soup.

As a lover of meatloaf of all persuasions, I found this beef and veal rendition nearly perfect. The meat is rolled around sauteed spinach with a hard-boiled egg in the center. Once cut, the three hearty, spiral slices are as pretty as they are tasty. Tlapa moistens the meat with winy pan gravy, and serves it with buttery mashed potatoes and crisp, sauteed string beans and squash. On an evening when the world is hard to bear, this dish will soothe you.

The grilled, sesame-crusted tuna won’t work the same magic. Served rare, as it was ordered, it was strangely tough and lacked the beefy flavor that good tuna possesses. Although the fish was a disappointment, I liked it paired with the cold cubes of Yukon Gold potatoes tossed in a tangy caper mayonnaise and a little pile of crisp string beans. The cold salad lent the dish a summery, "let’s cook a meal on the patio" appeal.

Some of the desserts, like cheesecake and warm chocolate cake, are traditional; others are more experimental. The lime cheesecake is a small round of creamy cake topped with lime-flavored whipped cream. The cake and topping would be fine on their own, but on the plate is a swirl of lime syrup hardened into pale green sugar crystals - an addition that serves only to distract from the dessert.

A cup of Sonny’s coffee may be the best conclusion to your meal. Lately I’ve been served either thin, tasteless coffee or brews so potent my hands shake after a couple of sips. Sonny’s blend is properly strong and velvety rich. It’s worth visiting the restaurant for a cup.

There are plenty of interesting places on Smith Street to celebrate your birthday or have a romantic dinner for two. To hang out with friends over a burger and great coffee, Sonny’s is the place.

 

Sonny’s Bar & Grill (305 Smith St. at Union Street in Carroll Gardens) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $7.50-$19. Sonny’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is served from 9:30 am to 4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Kids’ menu is available. For more information call (718) 643-3293.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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