Resplendent inside the defunct Portland Savings Bank, Sonny’s is serving Latin and Southwestern dishes at tables and booths scattered inside a large, high-ceilinged space. Longtime Portlanders will remember the business men in good suits who smoked cigarettes as they drank scotch at the bar of F. Parker Reidy’s.

In 2010 at 3-month-old Sonny’s, young folks preen in high heels and fine clothes around a gleaming cement bar, set off by its lighted lower panels.

At the tables, customers are munching on mofongo (something everyone should try), rabbit enchiladas with tangy mole and, in late March, a tamale made with braised goat from South Paw Farm in Unity.

“We’re having a blast doing this,” said part-owner and chef Jay Villani. He and partner Patrick Corrigan had been running Local 188 at Longfellow Square for years before opening Sonny’s in the Old Port.

“I know this is a completely different neighborhood than crosstown,” Villani said. “I have yet to crack the consciousness of it. People come up to the menu and look at it, and then run away. We’re making it a little bit more approachable; we’ve thrown some lower-price things on the menu.”

Corrigan, a local artist and illustrator, painted all the trompe l’oeil and wall paintings, including the charming design for the street number at the entrance. Local artisan and craftsman Jon Meade made the Federal White Cement bar, which was polished with diamond sandpaper, then buffed and coated with a food-grade finish.

Wine is served in thin, stemless glass bowls that are elegant to look at and hold – although Villani said his glass bill is huge, partly because of the marble mosaic tile floor.

Fragrant 2008 Wallace Brook Pinot Gris ($7 a glass, $28 a bottle), a medium-bodied white wine, began an acquaintance with Sonny’s wine list, which is full of bottles that prove this restaurant knows how to pick good wine. An elegant 2008 Torrontes from Andeluna in Argentina ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle) and South African 2008 Sincerely Sauvignon Blanc ($7 a glass, $28 a bottle), a sophisticated riff on Sancerre, were more delightful white wines, only topped by the 2008 McManis Pinot Noir ($8 a glass and $32 a bottle) from California, a well-balanced, vibrant red.

Cocktails are also in customers’ hands – perhaps the grapefruit-infused vodka cocktail ($8) or a strawberry chipotle margarita ($8). The beer list has Rogue Morimoto Soba (an ale made with buckwheat), Geary’s Pale Ale and a $3 Miller High Life among 12 brews on tap.

Content with our drinks, it was the food that gave rise to controversy. Maine shrimp cooked with garlic and olive oil ($8) was both the least good of the appetizers and better than it had been, we argued. Whichever was true, the tender shrimp in pungent oil vanished.

Ditto the house salad ($10) with its goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and fresh mandarin on local greens. Too much, said one, and just right, said the other. Generosity with the goat cheese made the salad satisfying, and the sweet Clementine gave it a perfect bit of sugar.

Mofongo ($9) is a fritter of mashed plantain and pork belly that is sweet, creamy and savory in one delicious go, accompanied by a roasted salsa.

But the empanada de la noche ($7) stuffed with roast pork and chicken, roasted peppers and queso blanco (a pressed goat cheese), held raw dough inside its capacious interior. It went back to the kitchen at the suggestion of the excellent server, but even when cooked through, it was weighed down by too much crust. Its stuffing, however, was superb.

Manchego cheese and mole sparked the mild rabbit with the meaty flavor of roasted chili in the braised rabbit-stuffed house tortillas in the enchilada ($19). This version seemed less elegant, with more stuff piled on, than earlier ones – perhaps in an attempt to appeal to more patrons.

Portland is a tough town to please, with its dedicated food lovers alert for flashes of brilliance and the rest of us trolling for good deals that are good to eat. But no one could be discontent with Sonny’s perfect chicken with rice and beans ($18). The chicken, cooked in wine, was utterly tender, and the seasoning was piquant and appetizing.

Seafood mariscada ($26) is simply enormous. Mahogany clams, browned and tender scallops, small mussels, vibrant black beans and rice, and some new carrots – long fresh ones – are piled around a big filet of perfectly cooked, tender haddock. All of it was good, even if one friend exclaimed, “Too much!” As every Maine restaurateur knows, one person’s excess is another’s perfect portion size.

The “basement ninja dessert princess Gabrielle,” according to Villani, came up with cr? celeste ($7, as are all desserts), a kind of panna cotta made with gelatin-based sour cream, that is simple and delightful.

Gabrielle fed Villani and his family sweet treats one snowy Saturday after answering a Craigslist ad, and got herself hired. Her chocolate cake with dacquoise had the novelty of crushed meringue in a rich filling.

Full-bodied coffee, both regular and decaf, showed off steady principles in both bean purchasing and brewing.


N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site,


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