West 25th welcomes yet another fine new dining spot

Southern Belle 

West 25th welcomes yet another fine new dining spot

When it comes to southern hospitality, nothing's more gracious than inviting in a stranger and setting out a plate of pimento cheese. That's precisely what takes place nightly at SoHo Kitchen and Bar, the latest in a flurry of new additions to Ohio City's restaurant row. Snug, cheerful, and glowing from within with candlelight, SoHo (short for southern hospitality) embraces visitors like a hug from Grandma.

Mercifully, Ohio City's newest eatery is not another gastropub. It's a "New Southern" bistro, serving fresh takes on cuisines such as Low Country, Cajun, Creole, and barbecue. Here, diners will find classic southern staples like shrimp and grits, catfish po' boys, and chicken and waffles, all dressed up for a more demanding modern audience.

Located in the former Lelolai Bakery space on West 25th, SoHo is run by Nolan Konkoski, a rising-star chef who has worked at Tartine Bistro in Rocky River and Momocho in Ohio City. In partnership with Molly Smith, the restaurant is a refreshing departure from those with broad, general menus lacking focus. Short, snappy, and cohesive, SoHo's menu makes perfect sense from start to finish.

Even the cocktails scream Deep South, with bourbon, rye, and moonshine-fueled bevies going down like sweet tea on a sticky summer day. The Louisville ($8.50) is a dangerously agreeable blend of bourbon, peach, and mint, while the Corpus Christi ($8.50) is more like a swift kick to the teeth thanks to white whiskey, lime, tomato, and hot sauce.

While guests have to pony up $7 for the killer pimento cheese ­— which is paired with warm housemade BBQ potato chips — the fluffy buttermilk biscuits are on the house. Served warm with honey butter and preserves, those biscuits are a heavenly start to a meal. So too are the "S'uthern Snacks," a decidedly southern-themed meat-and-cheese board laden with thin-sliced Virginia ham, Georgia Camembert, a washed-rind cow's milk cheese from Virginia, pickles, preserves, and toasts.

Of course, the only reason I know what, exactly, was on that meat platter was through a follow-up e-mail to the chef. Our server that night, while attentive and pleasant, had no idea what she was selling. In fact, when asked what was in the pickled garnish, she responded with, "I don't know. What do you think it is?" (They were pluots, by the way.) Our server on a subsequent visit fared much better in the knowledge department, only to squander that goodwill by hovering like an anxious hen.

If you order the crawfish and crab fritters expecting battered-and-fried morsels like we did, you too will be mistaken. "Fritters" in name alone, these are more accurately described as crab and crawfish cakes — and they're delicious. With just a whisper of absinthe added to the oysters Rockefeller, the warm, baked bivalves possess a welcome hint of anise.

Chicken and waffles may be becoming ubiquitous, but SoHo's version outshines most. Not only are the buttermilk fried chicken and sweet-potato-scented waffles expertly prepared, but when doused with housemade hot sauce and bourbon maple syrup, the dish becomes a riot of flavors and textures. The star in the shrimp and grits — behind the fat, succulent seafood — turns out to be the sautéed wild mushrooms, which give the dish incredible depth. Both the 'shrooms and the shrimp are nestled in a pool of creamy, corny grits. A pair of smoky, gravy-smothered pork chops is garnished with heavenly hush puppies.

A half-dozen hoagies, all built atop fresh, crusty baguettes, are stuffed with everything from fried green tomatoes and bacon to braised and shredded duck with cheese curds. They are big, savory, and paired with irresistibly thin potato chips.

In fact, "irresistible" is as apt a word as any for SoHo itself. Rarely will you see such immediate and nearly unanimous admiration of a new restaurant. The owners appear to have formulated a near-perfect alignment of location, concept, execution, and timing. What better time could there be than winter in the North to kindle warm visions of the South.

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