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Issue Date: May 2012

Southern Comfort

SoHo Kitchen & Bar showcases the flavors of the South with some surprising reinventions.
Laura Taxel

Like most other chefs, Nolan Konkoski dreamed of having his own restaurant. But he knew that to compete in Cleveland's hot, hip dining community, he had to come up with something different.

After studying the culinary landscape, Konkoski and his partner-in-love-and-labor, Molly Smith, found a niche. Nobody was focusing on Southern cooking. So that, they decided, would define SoHo Kitchen & Bar, the Ohio City spot they opened in November. The name, an acronym for Southern hospitality, captures the spirit and style of this small, unpretentious, laid-back spot that preaches the gospel of gumbo and grits.

But they're not merely whipping up beloved staples. Every dish on the streamlined menu draws on tradition but gets a fresh and sometimes spicy reinvention. The result is as familiar and comfortable as home with some unexpected and delightful surprises.

Take the aforementioned gumbo ($6). Konkoski personalizes the Creole mainstay by using duck. The stock is made from roasted bird bones, fat is rendered for the roux, meat goes in with the andouille and okra, and crisped bits of skin garnish the bowl of goodness. Zesty fried cornmeal dumplings ($5.50) can be had as an extra with anything and are served with the smothered pork chops ($17). The brined meat is perfect. As for the country gravy studded with morsels of Tasso ham, let's just say it would be a crime to leave even a drop on the plate.

Deviled eggs ($8 with salad, $5.50 alone) are a touch fiery, courtesy of the charred jalapeno vinaigrette splashed on the greens that keep them company alongside crumbled bacon, avocado and corn. The whipped yolks are flavored with just mayonnaise, mustard and white vinegar. "Some things," Konkoski wisely says, "don't need to be fussed with too much."

He takes a similar approach to fried green tomatoes ($9), embracing what's best about this classic and adding okra remoulade and a snowfall of cheese curds from Lake Erie Creamery, best known for its goat cheese but now branching out into some cow's-milk products

Turning seasonal bounty into pickles and preserves like an old-timey Georgia farm wife is a specialty here. Crunchy vinegared veggies show up on a snack plate of cheeses and salty country ham, sliced paper thin ($9). Fruit preserves arrive at the table with dreamy buttermilk biscuits. The policy is one fluffy round per person on the house. I wish they'd also sell them by the basketful.

Lamb belly ($9) is among my favorites. Braised overnight, then quick-seared to serve, it has a dark brown exterior with a slight, satisfying crunch, like the candy coating on M&Ms. It gives way to a rich, tender mouthful, made even better by the apricot mustard barbecue sauce it's dragged through first. The stewed collards that come along for the ride are among the best I've had.

In SoHo's spin on fried chicken and waffles ($17), pieces of poultry soaked in brown-sugar brine carry the sweet notes, while the peppery waffle batter spiked with rosemary provides a savory counterpoint. Bourbon maple syrup binds the two together, and an optional splash of the house hot sauce — a blend of habaneros, roasted red peppers and tomatoes — blesses the union.

I tried two of the po' boys ($12 each) and liked them both. The spicy shrimp features a piquant okra relish and celeriac remoulade (a Frenchified tartar sauce). Slow-roasted pork comes with a nice cabbage slaw, a no-mayo version dressed in a Carolina mustard mop.

There are some choices for vegetarians, including a veggie tempura version of these New Orleans sandwiches. A note on the bottom announces all SoHo beers, wines and cocktails are 100 percent meat-free, a useful piece of information since sipping a Nags Head ($8.50), made with rum, ginger and smoke, is like drinking liquid bacon.

That's one of more than half a dozen excellent cocktails. All the purees, syrups and such are prepared in the restaurant's kitchen. I'm partial to the Savannah ($8.50), tea-infused vodka mixed with honey lemonade and hibiscus. There are only a few wines but lots of interesting craft beers.

Start the night with a drink and an order of pimento cheese with a pile of house-made barbecue chips and you'll think you died and went to heaven. There's no front porch or swing but there is a side patio on the alley and seating for 40. Now would be an excellent time to check it out.

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