SoBo succeeds on attention to detail

July 02, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Baltimore's SoBo may never be as famous as New York's SoHo, the arty area south of Houston Street, or as trendy as Miami's SoBe, the art-deco jewel of South Beach. But South Baltimore has an appeal of its own, and so does Brent Ludtke's SoBo Cafe, which opened last December in Federal Hill.

It's hard not to have an immediate positive response walking into the bright and airy SoBo, with its gauzy curtains, paddle fans and sunflower-colored walls hung with bold artworks. Some are pretty funny, like Phil Wiley's surfing alien who also hangs 10 on the oversized blackboard above the wide stretch of SoBo's wooden bar.

That's where the menu, which changes daily, is written in chalk. The menu is a beautiful sight, not only because entrees like shrimp in chili sauce, and curried chicken with caramelized vegetables, sound enticing, but also because nothing costs more than $10.

There are a few things that are always available, including the potpie, soup of the day and the Cincinnati five-way chili. If you're like me and consider chili ingredients such as spaghetti an Ohio aberration, you can order either the meat or vegetarian chili plain.

We tried the chunky veggie version with corn. It comes on a plate of nachos, a sunburst of loaded chips topped with melted Cheddar.

The chicken potpie was served in a large casserole topped with buttery puff pastry embellished with the name of the cafe. Inside, big hunks of red-skinned potatoes, moist slivers of chicken, bright peas and hand-cut carrots and celery were nestled in a seasoned white sauce. Like the delicious broccoli soup we tried, creamy with whole florets, the potpie might be a little heavy for a summer night, unless you're in the mood for comfort food.

The linguine with mussels and clam sauce was a lighter choice. We loved the flavor of the sauce, with its soft sauteed peppers, celery and thyme. The dill the blackboard touted was FTC undetectable. It did show up as a nice surprise in the spinach pie appetizer, a phyllo-topped square filled with baby spinach and feta cheese. It was almost as light as a souffle.

We also tried SoBo's salmon, a small, flaky-moist fillet. It was served with a creamy roasted garlic sauce that won raves, artichoke hearts that somehow clashed with the fish, and sides of yellow rice and roasted carrots and zucchini.

Outside of those artichokes, there were few misses at SoBo. In the kitchen and out front, the staff clearly is paying attention to details.

That includes pastry chef Joanne Goshen, formerly of Louie's Bookstore Cafe, who spoons homemade whipped cream next to her blueberry pie and sits her tall cheesecake on a delectable, inch-thick chocolate-chip crust.

SoBo Cafe

Address: 8-10 W. Cross St.

410-752-1518

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$4.50; entrees, $7-$10

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ***; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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