The ’49ers found their treasure in the form of nuggets of gold hidden underground. Recently, we found treasure in nuggets of rich, yeasty dough redolent with garlic also underground at Sotto, the smartly renovated Annex. The descent to Princeton’s newest addition to nightlife is the same, albeit with warm red textured walls, but the space is transformed with stone and a more open plan. The bar has ample room for waiting for a seat in the dining room, something lacking in other venues, with couches and even a screened seating area where a larger party can relax.
On our first visit, we arrived unannounced at 8 p.m. on a Saturday and were told there would be a 20-minute wait. We were told they do accept reservations, but the spacious bar invited the wait, and indeed it was almost exactly 20 minutes. The full menu is served at the bar if we had chosen not to wait for the dining room. We took the time to look over the menu and the expanded, upgraded wine list but mostly people-watched. Several familiar faces from the Annex days were there along with a few families. Our waiter told us that anything on the menu could be downsized for smaller appetites and there were several choices of individual pizza.
Our second visit on another Saturday night was a bit more problematic in that there was a miscommunication from the staff about the need for reservations when we called, and we had a longer wait. Once seated, we also had a wait of almost an hour for our entrees, but it was Communiversity weekend, and the joint was jumping with diners and music aficiandos. Perhaps the flow will improve as the kinks are worked out in the kitchen.
The bar boasts funky, retro bucket seats that squooch down when you sit and the stone-wall theme continues around the room. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays bring live music to the bar, and on both our visits mellow jazz provided just the right level of sound, pleasant but not at a decibel level to make conversation, romantic or otherwise, impossible. The wait staff is a combination of new and old hands, now smartly dressed in black with bright orange ties. The owners are busily visible and eager to welcome old friends back for a new experience.
The new management has brought a decidedly upscale fare, fresh and varied, from their prior incarnation at La Principessa. The sinful bread, served with a homemade olive relish, must be consumed by all members of the party lest anyone not partaking succumb to the garlic.
On our first foray, we began by sharing polenta (always a challenge to present well) with sweet sausage. A friend who was a habitue of La Principessa recommends the large antipasto, considered enough for four, which she ordered for her main course. Our choices for main course were broiled flounder stuffed with crabmeat and chicken with mozzarella, sausage, and peppers. A nice touch in this day of all a la carte all the time is the inclusion of a small fresh house salad with the meal.
Our next visit allowed us to discover the trout special and some of the pasta dishes. The gnocchi were eagerly devoured by the carb lover of the group. Unfortunately, the lobster ravioli were a disappointment to this girl from Maine, who wished for actual chunks of lobster meat rather than a finely ground paste filling. But the trout was firm and moist, with nary a bone in its body.
Prices for the appetizers top out at $10 for the large antipasto. Putting a twist on the usual appetizers is shrimp scampi bruschetta ($9) as well as the standards of eggplant rollatini and mussels in marinara sauce ($9). The salads are substantial with additions of shrimp and/or scallops and range from $7 to $10. The dinner menu offers a good choice of pasta, veal, chicken, beef, and fish dishes including rack of lamb. The entrees, while substantial, are not overwhelmingly large, a pleasant change from groaning plates or artfully sparse architectural creations. Main courses are priced in the teens to high $20s. Among the dessert choices of creme brulee, tiramisu, and sorbets, we chose to split a dish of two small but perfectly formed cannolis, exactly enough to polish off the wine and give a sweet ending.
Lunch offers panini ($9), wraps ($8 to $9) and black angus burgers, including a burger oscar with fresh lump crabmeat ($9 to $10). Pizza runs the gamut of styles, again some with a twist ($9 to $12).
The wine list is sizable and moderately priced with the exception of a $120 bottle of Opus One. We opted for a bottle of the less flamboyant Orvieto for $26, which went quite well with both the chicken and fish.
The ambiance is still friendly and casual. The upscale decor is not stuffy and the welcome is genuine with the encouragement to linger to hear the music sincere. This would be a good place to take guests, the boss, or your sweetheart. And rumor has it that the restaurant now offers oversized cloth napkins. instead of the flimsy paper ones when we visited. The night is young, the company charming, the music mellow, and the Manhattans well chilled. Sotto may be below Nassau Street but it offers a welcome choice for above average food in downtown Princeton.
Sotto 128 Restaurant and Lounge, 128.5 Nassau Street, 609-921-7555.