There’s a lot going on at Sonny’s Restaurant in the Old Port. It’s not just the crowd, which spills out from the bar onto the two overstuffed couches near the entrance and provides a steady buzz that fills the high-ceilinged rooms overlooking Exchange Street; or the ornate, tiled floors and the enormous safe that recall the building’s 19th-century origins as the Portland Savings Bank; or the stained-glass windows left over from its incarnation as F. Parker Reidy’s. There’s a lot going on with the menu, too. Chef Jay Villani (who also owns Local 188 and Salvage BBQ) says, “We serve American comfort-style food with a Latin influence,” which apparently comprises everything from fried chicken and chocolate cake to empanadas and enchiladas. “And we like to experiment.”

The miscellany is unexpected – and so is at least some of the food.

Start with the empanada del dia ($9), a tender turnover stuffed with “Caribbean chicken” the night we visited. Flavorful, fiery and aromatic, the ground chicken was spiced with a hot sauce made of roasted garlic, brown sugar, orange juice, Champagne vinegar and pineapple – an unorthodox but satisfying combination. The empanada came with a scorching chipotle sour cream, but didn’t really need it; the hearty turnover was plenty moist on its own. Still, watering eyes and singed taste buds aside, the sauce was a delicious complement.

Unfortunately, not even blazing sour cream could elevate forgettable fried plantains ($7). Generous in size but low in flavor (a sprinkling of salt would have helped), the appetizer serving was greasy on the outside and dry on the inside.

Better were pulled pork enchiladas ($13), corn tortillas filled with shredded pork and topped with pico de gallo, the bracing salsa made with tomatoes, onions and chiles. I grabbed an overstuffed enchilada (they’re not for the faint of heart or the merely peckish; these bad boys are seriously filling) and bit in, savoring the intense, meaty pork. When I asked Villani how long the kitchen cooked the pork butt, he said “we bake it overnight to get that flavor.” And “that flavor” was pretty good: lots of salt, the sweetness of onions and bell peppers, and a strong whiff of thyme.

The pork enchiladas were tasty, and – like Sonny’s – there was a lot going on: Piled around the plate were a mound of rice, a hefty serving of black beans, a chiffonade of scallions, a shower of grated cheddar and the restaurant’s red cabbage slaw – one of first garnishes introduced when Sonny’s opened five years ago. Many of those accompaniments seemed undistinguished – but I liked the cool slaw, a welcome contrast to the smoldering sour cream: it was fresh and tart and just a little sweet.

White fish with Parisian gnocchi ($26) didn’t sound like a classic comfort dish or a Latin staple; it turned out to be a nicely seared piece of pollack bathed in herb butter. To be honest, I tried it for the Gallic gnocchi. What could possibly make them Parisian, I wondered? The answer, a cook told me, was the preparation: Instead of being rolled off of a fork or a gnocchi board to create the tiny ridges that hold a sauce, these dumplings were piped into boiling water with a pastry bag (presumably from France) and the texture was airy – almost fragile. (The flavor was light as well, with just a hint of potato.) Even without ridges, the gnocchi clung to the butter sauce; each delicate pillow glistening and flecked with pieces of tarragon.

Jay Villani admits that Sonny’s (his nickname for his teenage son), is constantly experimenting with new recipes and techniques. “Our challenge isn’t the bar – that’s always busy – it’s attracting the dining public in a part of town where they have so many choices. That’s why we introduce different items and dishes, and it’s why we just renovated in January, to bring some buoyancy into the restaurant.” (Speaking of buoyancy, the wait staff could use a bit. On the evening we visited, our waitress was polite but uninterested. “It seems as if she’d rather be over with that party at the bar,” a friend who joined me for dinner observed.)

Occasionally the kitchen’s willingness to try something different falls flat. Think plantains. Other times it succeeds, as when chef de cuisine EthanTobey found a container filled with almond mash that the bar manager hadn’t used. “I stuck a spoon into it and thought, ‘This tastes just like cookie dough. It would be great in a dessert.'” He blended it with black cherry and sour cherry jam and spread it between the layers of a just-baked, gluten-free cake, then poured chocolate ganache over the top. It’s now a staple on the menu, a luscious and velvety confection ($7) that gives gluten-free (which too often translates to sandy) a much better name.

What with the layers of cake, and the almonds, and the jams, and the ganache, there’s a lot going on with Sonny’s gluten-free chocolate cake. And there’s a lot going on at Sonny’s: bar and restaurant, Latin empanadas and Parisian gnocchi, chilly service and flaming condiments. Idiosyncratic? Indeed. but worth a try when you’re searching for someplace upbeat downtown.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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