A small, constantly changing menu at a restaurant is almost always a good sign. Throw in a charming Federal Hill location, a careful list of inexpensive wines and rock-bottom prices, and it's hard to go wrong.
That formula has been earning SoBo Cafe an affectionate following since it opened about six years ago. At 6 p.m. on the nose - when dinner service begins - customers start filing in, sitting at tables spaced a pleasant distance apart. The walls are painted bright tangerine and a bold blue. The floors are wood, and the artwork, mostly paintings and metal wall decorations, is for sale. The music is jazzy but quiet.
The service is just right - low-key, but someone is always there when you need her. Within minutes, a laminated wine list is presented, along with a handwritten paper menu. The same 10 items also appear on a chalkboard toward the front of the Cross Street cafe.
In these days of supersized menus, a restaurant that offers just 10 items a night is a treat. (Sometimes there are a few more, but never more than 15.) Certain items appear again and again - a chicken pot pie that sells for a mere $10 and a cowboy pie with blue-cheese mashed potatoes. Salads are always Caesar and house, and appetizers usually include mac and cheese and a chili made with and without meat.
But regular customers can always find something new that takes advantage of what's fresh and available and showcases the creativity of the kitchen. One night, a strip steak might be topped with bacon-gorgonzola sour cream, the next a pumpkin ravioli might be bathed in a green curry coconut sauce. (Lunch is mostly deli sandwiches and a special or two.)
Owner Brent Ludtke said he and chefs Winston Blich and Joe Herbick try to outdo each other with unusual preparations such as a sweet chili beet coulis over perch, or a roasted red pepper remoulade for salmon croquettes. The dishes take their cues from different cultures, but it's not fusion, exactly.
"We call it con-fusion," he said.
The result is food that isn't always perfect but is always interesting and fresh-tasting.
The very garlicky and cheesy Caesar salad, for example, was almost too much of a good thing, practically a sledgehammer to the taste buds, but the green leaves had obviously been chosen and handled with care, and the croutons on top were enormous, buttery treats.
A fresh-tasting basil vinaigrette saved the house salad, a mix of greens, shredded carrot, cucumber and red onion, from being ordinary.
Cowboy pie, a SoBo staple, was a delicious mix of ground beef and lamb with chunks of vegetables, served steaming hot in an oval ceramic bowl. The blue-cheese potato topping elevated the one-dish meal to excellent, and the $11 price tag made it a must-try.
A strip steak was cooked medium rare, as requested, and was nicely flavored but on the tough side. It was topped with bacon-gorgonzola sour cream, which was as yummy as it sounds and a perfect foil to the buttery mashed potatoes served alongside. A generous serving of tender green beans, garnished with slivers of red pepper, rounded out the plate.
A more complicated dish was the perch with miso crust and chili beet coulis over white rice, with spears of broccoli. The presentation was impressive, with the red coulis squiggled over everything, and the fish, as I had come to expect, was perfect. I found this dish too fussy, but one of my friends loved it. In fact, we switched. She gave me her steak, and I gave her my fish, and we were both happy.
Most nights, desserts are offered. Ludtke said sweets usually include house-baked cheesecake, a giant cupcake and a few pies from the wonderful Dangerously Delicious Pies in Canton.
However, no desserts were available when I was there, even though my friends and I arrived early. I guess even a charming neighborhood bistro with a creative, inexpensive menu can have flaws.
Where: 6-8 W. Cross St., Federal Hill
Open: Daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$4; entrees, $11-$14
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *