Sophia's, Columbia

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Owned and operated by three University of Missouri grads, Sophia’s restaurant was on my short list to try. The partners’ first restaurant, Addison’s, serves customers in downtown. More than a decade ago, Sophia’s opened as their second successful foray into the Columbia food scene.

On a girl’s getaway weekend, my friend Diane and I dined at this popular south-side spot. The locally-sourced menu revolves around Italian cuisine but diverges into interesting, and memorable, twists on southern European dishes—namely Spanish tapas and Moroccan and Mediterranean fare.

“Our executive chef, Jeremy, has a culinary background and hospitality degree from MU,” says co-owner Matt Jenne. “His passion for food remains the impetus behind our menus.”

Sophia’s Tuscan ambience emanates from its warm color palette, but the restaurant’s most notable feature is its mythological murals that decorate the ceilings and walls. The paintings are by local artist, friend and associate professor at MU, David Spear. His style is akin to Thomas Hart Benton with depictions of the Midwest.

Much of Sophia’s menu is created in-house including mozzarella for the Caprese antipasti, the marinara and all the sauces. Matt said that they’ve gained a reputation for Sophia’s Italian Nachos, deservedly so—fried sheets of pasta chips (much like a wonton) piled high with Asiago cheese, marinara, roasted red peppers, scallions, black olives and chicken. The beautifully plated, sushi grade Ahi Tuna tapa was served on wonton crisps and topped with wasabi vegetable slaw, sweet soy reduction and sriracha aioli. And we almost licked the plate of the Filet Porto tapa: bite-sized beef tenderloin slices, properly grilled medium-rare, crowned with bleu cheese and port wine reduction.

For entrees, recommended Chicken Mudega was served lightly breaded and capped with provolone, sautéed mushrooms, prosciutto and a lovely tarragon cream sauce served over angel hair pasta. The wild-caught Horseradish Encrusted Salmon sounded intriguing, and Matt assured me that once customers try the dish, they order it again and again. The baked horseradish crust drizzled with horseradish honey sauce made a loyal follower out of me. The Mediterranean Chicken Pasta showcased a creamy, pesto Asiago sauce. Paired wines can be ordered by the glass or by the bottle from approximately 30 labels.

For dessert, we split the house-made Almond Brownie Fudge Pudding—brownies and toasted almonds baked in a white chocolate custard and topped with crème anglaise. Big enough to share, it was the perfect finale to an excellent meal.

Billy Gail's Cafe, Branson

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A crowded parking lot and busy waiting room attest to the homemade goodness served inside Billy Gail’s. For 20 years, this much-loved Branson eatery has served breakfast and lunch.

Located in a 1960s log cabin-style gas station, its original owner was the first conductor for Silver Dollar City’s railroad.

Ozarky and fun, red checked tablecloths and solid red curtains reflect owner Gail Blong’s cheery persona. Oil lanterns, retrofitted with electricity, line the paneled walls. Servers bustle around the small dining areas wearing jeans and red T-shirts touting “One Big Family—Hundreds of Friends—A Tradition” emblazoned on the back.

“The first day we opened without much fanfare,” says Gail. “I knew we’d be successful, and now we serve 400 to 500 people daily during high season.”

On a December weekday morning as my husband and I walked through the door, a woman from Overbrook, Kansas, commented that they’d visited Branson for years, and Billy Gail’s has been one of their go-to spots. Confirming her opinion, the kitschy gift shop/waiting room was already filling with hungry diners. Behind the counter, Gail ran the cash register. As each person paid, they received her sincere sendoff, “Have a blessed day!” One note, Billy Gail’s takes cash and checks.

The tried and true menu has seen minor tweaking throughout the years. Gail’s famous sloppy biscuit combines a homemade biscuit, cheese, sausage and egg smothered with her from-scratch gravy and hash browns. Another winner, the chicken-fried steak with hash browns, also comes covered in her decadent gravy that most people splurge on only during vacation. Four-egg omelets, as feather-light as any I’ve eaten, include Gail’s Famous Omelet stuffed with ham, cheddar cheese, onions, green and red peppers and mushrooms.

And the pancakes! Fluffy cakes lap over dinner-size ironstone plates. Our waitress urged us to order the French pancake, coated in French toast batter before it’s cooked on the grill and dipped in powdered sugar prior to serving. For lovers of French toast, it’s the best of both worlds.

After breakfast, I browsed the floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the walls. Customers and employees bring in antique glassware and knick knacks for sale. I couldn’t resist green and blue retro votives and an antique yellow pitcher that’s perfect for cut flowers—mementos of a newfound favorite in Branson.

Visit online at Facebook.com/BillyGailsCafe.

Abigail's, Rocheport

by ELIZABETH HEY
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In 1996, Todd and Susan Schapira opened Abigail’s in the former Mt. Nebo Baptist Church. Five years later, they moved to Rocheport’s historic Central Street corridor. It’s no wonder that Abigail’s receives high praises considering the Schapira’s zeal for culinary innovation and almost 50 years of combined experience in the restaurant business.

Both Mizzou grads, Todd and Susan met lifeguarding in the summer. After college, Susan trained Todd at a Columbia restaurant, and “the rest is history,” according to Susan. Both dreamed of opening a restaurant but wanted to be involved with their young family. That’s when Rocheport popped up on their radar.

“We literally live 20 seconds away with our two teens and five, crazy Boston Terriers,” says Susan. “We still wear many hats, and at Sunday lunch, the entire family works at the restaurant, which is named after our daughter.”

The menu—written on a dry erase board—changes daily based on seasonal produce.

Susan’s inspiration often comes while eating out or thumbing through magazines. Todd does more research, but many recipes are simply created. Diners can always expect beef, seafood and pasta with lamb, pork and veal alternating into the menu. Reservations are a must, especially on weekends. Even on a Thursday night, the 35-seat restaurant was full.

“I love to get local produce from a farm near the river called the Veggie Patch,” says Susan. “The owner stops by every Friday afternoon, and I shop from the back of his loaded pickup.”

To start our dinner, my husband and I ordered the wild rice and apple pancake with brie, an amazing combination of sweet and savory. As an entrée, I couldn’t pass up the lobster, shrimp and scallop ravioli topped with fresh basil and Asiago cream sauce, surprisingly light and cooked to perfection. Susan doesn’t offer traditional Italian-style dishes; instead she might use a marinara made from peppers and summer squash topped with cashews and feta. In the fall, the pasta might incorporate butternut squash topped with dried cherries, nuts and blue cheese. Her sweet lemon pasta was included in Southern Living’s “Off the Eaten Path” cookbook, and the Washington Post picked it up, too.

“I’m a huge fan of our pasta dishes, and I have a hard time going out for pasta because I feel I can make something better,” Susan explains.

We also ordered the excellent pork tenderloin medallions accompanied by an apricot chipotle. One extremely well-traveled diner remarked that his petite beef fillets topped with Boursin cheese and a balsamic reduction were some of the best he had eaten anywhere.

Dessert can be a difficult decision since Abigail’s is known for seasonal pies and cakes. The moist coconut cake and decadent nut toffee pie confirmed that reputation. There are usually eight desserts to choose from—fortunately, all justifiable after a day on the Katy Trail.

Visit online at Abigails-Restaurant.com.

JB Hooks

by Elizabeth Hey
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Voted best room with a view and best seafood restaurant, JB Hooks has been named “Best of the Lake” 14 consecutive years by TheLakeOnline.com.

The large patio and piano bar buzz with happy hour specials and live music that often includes a jazz ensemble on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Established in 1995, the restaurant caters to families, couples and large groups. The night I visited, co-owner Bruce Elliott, a 43-year lake resident, circulated through the restaurant welcoming diners.

“We pride ourselves on service,” says general manager Keith Skinner.

Chef William Ferguson, a longtime lake resident, took the helm in the kitchen last spring. Seafood specialties include oysters, lobster tails and king crab legs. Scallops, salmon and dinner specials like Chilean sea bass come in fresh. Ferguson has added several new dishes like the terrific Fresh Day Boat Scallops Rockefeller, which I ordered. Scallops are lightly Cajun dusted, pan seared and served over a bed of sautéed spinach, onion and bacon, then finished with sweet vermouth cream and hollandaise sauces. An extensive wine list offers upwards of 100 different labels, from $20 to $260 per bottle, and 21 wines by the glass.

We started with JB Hooks’ most popular appetizer, Crunchy Grouper Fingers. The in-house creation features strips of grouper rolled in frosted flakes, flash fried and drizzled with honey and raspberry chipotle sauce—so delicious we could have eaten an entrée size.

Entrees include a choice of soup or a generous Italian salad plus vegetable. The excellent Salmon Bisque made with heavy cream has a touch of anisette. Always served are lavosh crackers and a tasty house-made smoked tomato fresh basil cream cheese.

My daughter ordered the signature Steak and Australian Lobster Tail, which has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. A total splurge at $80, the filet was tender and perfectly cooked, and the mammoth tail offered plenty to share. On special occasions, including Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, it is offered as an entrée for two at $100, which includes one tail with two complete steak dinners.

“It’s a six-ounce filet mignon and one-pound lobster tail,” says Chef Ferguson. “Most restaurants only serve a six- to eight-ounce tail.”

Desserts, made in-house, include a lighter version of New York-style cheesecake with delectable turtle topping. However, the hit at our table was the brownie stuffed with Reese’s pieces, then heated and topped with vanilla ice cream. It never made it to the to-go box