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Ethnic.city: Sonny's Place

Deli vet Sonny Azani cooks up Middle Eastern classics

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After just one visit to Sonny's Place (2168 Briarcliff Road, 404-982-0666), owner Sonny Azani will remember your face. After two visits, he'll remember everything you ordered the last time you were there. By visit three, you're family — complete with a little good-natured ribbing.

No stranger to the restaurant business — or the kind of wry-charm it takes to be successful — Azani retired seven years ago to raise his children after serving Atlanta for 18 years with his Jewish delis: Sonny's Deli and Sonny's on Ponce. But, while keeping house, Azani couldn't stay away from food and found himself constantly watching Food Network. When his friend and future partner Franke Eghtesadi approached him with the idea to open a new restaurant on Briarcliff Road, Azani jumped at the chance. "The restaurant business is like being an alcoholic — you can't stay away," he says.

Despite being a self-proclaimed artist with corned beef and pastrami, Azani went in another direction with Sonny's Place, which serves vegetarian, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean food. "I have the same wife all my life, but I can change the food I cook," Azani jokes.

No matter what you order, Azani — who's like that jovial Israeli uncle you never knew you wanted — has an opinion. It's not uncommon for him to say things like, "Do you want it how you want it or how I like it?" The menu is filled with plenty of classic Middle Eastern dishes, salads, fresh soups, fish, pastas, breakfast (served all day) and a stellar (and relatively healthy) kid's menu where everything — around 12 items — is less than $4.

Naturally, the Middle-Eastern section deserves the most attention, and it's what Azani seems most proud of. Pay attention to the falafel in particular. It's super crunchy and bright green on the inside thanks to a copious amount of minced fresh parsley. You can order the falafel in a sandwich stuffed with vegetables and creamy tahini dressing, or as a centerpiece of the sampler platter. The sampler platter also comes with pickles, creamy — never grainy — hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, chopped cucumber salad and a basket of warm pita.

Puffy latkes (shredded potato pancakes) are remarkably flavorful and speckled with bits of fresh herbs. An order of three arrives with a generous serving of applesauce and thick sour cream. Flaky burekas — a baked pastry made with filo, feta and spinach — are accompanied by sliced boiled eggs and a little salad for balance. Another specialty, the shakshouka, looks like an absolute mess on the plate, but it's total comfort food. Tomatoes are sautéed with chopped green pepper, onions, garlic and spices, and topped with either a fried egg or an omelet. You can get it mild or super spicy. The dish, like most of the breakfast items, comes with the water bagels Azani sources from Brooklyn, N.Y. Don't forget to ask for some of the ethereal cucumber and dill whipped cream cheese to smear on top. Better yet, Sonny's Place recently rolled out a full vegetarian buffet for lunch and dinner ($8.95 for lunch and $10.95 for dinner, including soup and fish) where you can sample all of Azani's offerings.

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