Epicurious Eating: SoHo Restaurant and Lounge
Rebel of The Boulevard
Published Thursday, 15-Apr-2010 in issue 1164
Restaurant critics usually hold out at least a month before entering new establishments with pens and notebooks in hand. Yet after previewing SoHo Restaurant and Lounge’s menu online recently, I couldn’t wait the 30 days for trying things like bone marrow patties, wood-fired mussels, black eyed pea cakes and a host of other comfort-style dishes that take unusual leaps between the American South, Mexico, South America and the Middle East.
Things like house-made rabbit corndogs, fried cactus with harissa and chorizo-stuffed chicken with purple potato hash rank among the other gutsy offerings served from this uninspiring stretch of El Cajon Boulevard, which is hardly known for adventurous cuisine, except for perhaps the Russian-owned Pomegranate.
SoHo replaces Vesuvio Gourmet, a long-running Italian restaurant that turned into a dreary yawner under its last ownership. Now, the space is cheerier and tidier, with the same airy layout comprising a bar and dining booths, but showing off wildly colored paintings hanging gallery style, plus dark-red accent walls and muted-green crushed velvet upholstery. Overall, the design is unexpectedly contemporary for these necks, despite two flat-screen TVs adding commonness to the scheme.
Owner Carlos DeNarvaez, who is part Columbian and worked as a general manager for various restaurants over the past several years, has pulled in Executive Chef Kevin Cedillo to craft and execute the highly eclectic menu. Cedillo grew up on a Texas ranch in his early years eating freshly slaughtered meats and backyard produce, thus contributing a homespun quality to SoHo’s dishes. He also worked in the kitchens of Laurel, Whiskenladle, Nine-Ten and A.R. Valentin, where he acquired poise for injecting global twists into his down-home roots.
In hush puppies found on the “small plates” list, for instance, he incorporates aged cheddar and serves them with snappy Creole mustard remoulade. The beef-vegetable soup du jour we tried revealed chunks of grilled flat iron steak to give it extra Midwest heartiness, while black eyed peas took on a whole new life in the form of a “cake” constructed with panko crumbs, cream, shallots and basil. Complimented with jalapeno salsa verde and truffle crème fraiche, it ranked as our favorite starter.
A loose hand on the sea salt shaker, however, plagued other first courses such as jumbo shrimp sitting atop a bone marrow patty and surrounded sadly by wickedly rubbery octopus pieces. The patty, a clever creation made with equal parts masa and marrow was the best element of the dish, escaping the riddling saltiness of the seafood and tasting kind of like hot buttered toast. The underlying puddle of red chimichurri sauce, based in veal stock and smoothly constructed, was also spared.
Wood-fired mussels were borderline overdosers, perhaps due to the salty chorizo floating within a pleasant white wine pond filled also with nicely caramelized leeks. I can’t say they were the tenderest mussels on the planet, but their wood-fire finish was appealing nonetheless.
Considering that SoHo is still in “dress rehearsal,” having opened just late last month, our entrees indicated to us that the chef is merely tripping lightly rather than stumbling flat onto his face. My companion’s braised beef short ribs warranted an encore. The meat was as rich and tender as beef cheeks, enjoying an extra lift by Peruvian cherry “salsa” sitting on one side of the plate and robust jus on the other. Fearing that the cherry salsa (more of a compote, really) would taste cloying, we concluded just the opposite, noting its deep-sour flavor tempered perfectly by faint wisps of natural sugar, green onions and cilantro. Yes, short ribs are on every menu in town nowadays, but few are as good as these.
Bacon-wrapped meatloaf didn’t taste secretive as so many do. Both the beef and lamb in the loaf mixture were discernible and charmingly balanced. The modest-size slice was served over horseradish mash potatoes, fried leeks, baby carrots, English peas and chipollini onions. “Put a little bit of everything in your mouth at the same time, and you end up with good cowboy stew,” my companion commented enthusiastically.
SoHo’s wine list isn’t lengthy, but it obliges with refined by-the-glass pinot noirs and “interesting reds” such as a South African pinotage and a malbec reserve from Argentina’s Uco Valley, which would have probably struck a better match in body to my meatloaf than the buoyant, semi-fruity Solaire pinot I chose.
And then there’s the big question on what wine to pair with mini rabbit corndogs? Perhaps I’ll figure it out in my next visit, or maybe never since I don’t prefer my bunny meat on sticks and dredged in corn batter. But I give SoHo credit for pushing the envelope in a commercial district that stands to use all of the culinary innovations it can get.