Soto's charms with mixed cuisine and fresh look

November 15, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Not everybody likes to admit it, but looks really do matter. One case in point is Soto's Grill, a new Greek, Italian and American food restaurant in Ellicott City.

Judged solely by the food, Soto's, which opened in May, could easily be a no-frills order-at-the-counter Greek restaurant that also serves hamburgers, salads and pizzas. But this sparkling spot, tucked into a new housing and retail development in Ellicott City, charms diners with its carefully thought-out interior and above-average service.

True, owner Sotirios Strumpis (better known as Soto) had the advantage of starting from scratch in a brand-new building. He didn't have to bother ripping out old fixtures or scrubbing away smoke smells from the bad old days before Howard County's smoking ban.

But he still gets credit for creating the restaurant's beautifully textured walls, which are painted in terra cotta shades, for designing a spacious dining room and a welcoming entryway, and for paying attention to all-important but too-often-neglected details such as the music and artwork.

Strumpis, who comes from a long line of Baltimore-area restaurant owners, said his mother, Panayiota (Pam) Strumpis, helped design the space and also cooks all the Greek dishes, including a pastitsio, or Greek lasagna ($13.99), the spinach pie known as spanakopita ($7.99) and dolmathes ($7.99), the stuffed grape leaves.

Soto Strumpis is in charge of the Italian dishes - the pizzas and pastas - as well as the American-style meals such as hamburgers ($8.99) and the beer-battered shrimp basket ($13.99).

I sampled one dish from all three ethnicities, and decided that the Soto's kitchen is entirely professional, though perhaps lacking that little spark of creativity that would push it over the edge to greatness.

A chicken souvlaki gyro (my Greek choice, $6.99) combined strips of white meat with a classic cucumber-yogurt sauce and topped it with lettuce, tomato and onion. Nothing out of the ordinary, but certainly a decent representation of the dish. The American choice, a crab cake melt ($9.99), started with a large and flavorful crab cake (no big lumps of meat, though), then added provolone cheese. Again, this dish met the basic criteria, but didn't exceed them.

Same with the Italian choice, a pizza. Soto's offers several varieties, including a veggie version ($10.99 for a 12-inch) with mushrooms, peppers, onions and Kalamata olives. The dough was chewier than I would have liked, and the sauce a little sweeter, but overall it was a more than acceptable pie. One nice touch was that it had two kinds of peppers on top - pickled and fresh.

Desserts at Soto's can be selected from a changing roster of cakes and pies. We tried a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and liked the rich chocolate flavor and moist texture of the cake, as well as the fact that the frosting was not overly sweet.

Strumpis says his grandparents, who came from Greece, opened a restaurant called Paisano's, then sold gyros and other Greek food at Lexington Market. His parents ran a place called Soto's Eatery in Bel Air, and Strumpis most recently partnered with a cousin on a more casual restaurant, Three Sons in Bel Air. He sold that to open in Ellicott City, he said.

Strumpis said his main challenge is getting people to discover his restaurant, which is tucked into the new development and not visible from the main road. Once people eat at Soto's, they tend to come back, he said.

Soto's Grill

Where:

8001 Hillsborough Road, Ellicott City

Call:

443-574-8989

Hours:

3 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $1.99-$12.99, entrees $6.99-$19.99

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

[Outstanding: -- Good: -- Fair or uneven: -- Poor:]

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