If there is one thing Frank and Susan Smith have learned in their 14 years as owners of the popular Soho restaurant, it’s don’t mess with success. There are three menu items that are sacrosanct to Soho customers, and woe betide the Smiths if those dishes ever disappear.
“Chicken tortilla soup, salmon Thai and chocolate bread pudding,” Frank said with a grin. “They’ve all been on the menu since day one.”
Open since 1997 in Vinings Jubilee, Soho enjoys a loyal customer base that expects the dishes they love, but also are appreciative of Executive Chef Joey Ahn’s newer creations.
To describe Soho’s menu as eclectic is a fair evaluation, Susan said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re in the mood for. You’re going to find it here.”
This self-described American bistro’s regular offerings are mostly homey and familiar, ranging from grilled pork chop, hangar steak, braised short ribs and crab cakes to slightly more sophisticated fare like beef Bolognese and elk tenderloin. Yet even what could be prosaic in lesser hands becomes decidedly more special with Chef Joey’s added flair. Everyday ingredients are often enlivened with the unusual, yielding a composed dish that can be unexpectedly different yet completely delightful.
Calamari is a staple on many appetizer menus, but at Soho, there’s a twist. Chef Joey’s Calamari is his family recipe. He starts with fresh calamari, breads it lightly and stir-fries it with a ginger and soy glaze, diced sweet peppers and Serrano peppers. Sweet and mildly spicy, this treatment should quickly supplant any preferences lovers of this cephalopod may have had for the ubiquitous deep-fried version.
Hawaiian poke tuna is a seldom-seen mixture of cubes of raw ahi tuna tossed with seaweed, sweet onions and a roasted sesame sauce. PEI mussels luxuriate in a broth of lemongrass, Serrano peppers and white wine. And that popular salmon Thai? A delightful mix of chopped basil, mint, cilantro, ginger, lemongrass, peanuts and garlic wrapped in rice paper with grilled salmon and drizzled with a tasty citrus ponzu sauce. No wonder it’s a top seller here.
My curiosity was piqued by the elk, which I’d never tasted. With reassurance that it wasn’t gamey because the animal is farm-raised rather than wild, I had to try it. The medium rare medallions accented by a raspberry mustard marinade were tender and immensely flavorful, somewhat reminiscent of lamb but with a pleasantly exotic meatiness of its own. I would definitely order it again.
Duck confit is one of the chef’s personal favorites, and it shows up on his menu in one form or another on a regular basis. On the evening I was there, it was in spring rolls, but he also likes putting it in crepes, quesadillas and even pasta. Joey puts a playful spin on his confit, using fresh thyme, bay leaf, garlic, peppercorns and a cinnamon stick to impart a hint of aromatic spice into the richness of the duck.
“Joey has the gift of a light touch. Instead of an enormous amount of seasoning, he uses pinches, just enough not to overwhelm,” Susan said.
His parents owned a restaurant, and Joey acquired a love of cooking when he was very young. He developed his skills at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and honed his expertise in other people’s kitchens before taking the lead role at Soho 11 years ago.
The menu is “by committee,” said Susan, an accomplished home cook who admits to having “quite a few opinions” about what comes out of Soho’s kitchen. She and Frank and Joey put significant effort into getting any new dish just right, tweaking it through several incarnations until it meets their standard and they’re sure guests will embrace it.
“When we add another dish, we’re very particular, because it means something else is coming off to make room,” Frank explained.
While many items can be found year-round, there are seasonal adjustments. Frank makes the trip to the state farmer’s market at least three times weekly and brings back whatever produce looks good that day.
“It could be anything from fava beans to peaches,” he said. Those items will end up in Joey’s daily specials.
Small plates and wine pairings are a relatively new feature at Soho. Guests can order these at any time or stop by on Wednesdays for Flight Night, themed tastings from wine regions around the world, with small plates prepared by Chef Joey to complement each of the flight wines.
Soho’s gleaming wood, Tuscan-inspired colors and paintings by local artists provide a comfortable backdrop, making it equally as appealing to sit and enjoy food at the bar as in the dining areas. Customers will find a well-chosen and reasonably priced wine list as well as a full stock of premium liquors and interesting beers.
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