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Restaurant Review: With new owner, SoBo Cafe goes back to basics

The puckish SoBo Cafe flourished in Federal Hill for a good decade, especially in those early times when Winston Blick, now of Clementine, was running the kitchen. Its last few years were rocky, though, and last fall, SoBo was sold to Anna Leventis, a Towson native who left behind a career in information technology to open her first restaurant.

Three months after taking over the comfort food haven, Leventis has begun to steer SoBo Cafe into interesting directions. Old favorites are still on the menu, but new ones now predominate, and they are the reason to plan a visit. When we went, Leventis herself was helping to wait on tables. It's that kind of place.

Fans of the original will recognize SoBo Cafe as a spruced-up version of its former self. The walls, once bright blue and orange, are now painted in more restful shades of orange. The tables are crisply dressed with white butcher's paper over cloth, and meticulously set with black napkins, vases, votive candles and salt-and-pepper grinders.

If the lights here are a little too bright and the music a little muffled, it helps keep SoBo Cafe an appealing option in Federal Hill, where few places cater to families with children — or older folks who like to hear themselves think.

The bar area, formerly a secondary prep space, has been decluttered and now looks like a place where you'd want to curl up with a glass of wine. Or you could try sangria, a wine-based mojito or the SoBo Apple Cart, a mix of white wine, sparking cider and lime. More wine-and-beer-only restaurants should be doing this.

The dinner menu at SoBo is a one-sheet listing of 14 starters and 10 entrees. Leventis has been making menu changes gingerly, which makes sense, but it has the effect of blurring her personal stamp. It's not clear which items are holdovers, which are new and which are tweaks to old favorites — the mac-and-cheese, for instance, is cheesier now and is topped with a crunchy panko bread crumbs. This cautious approach keeps SoBo's new identity a little uncertain.

Even before ordering, you might find yourself warming up to SoBo Cafe, which is now making and selling its own breads and biscuits, as well as its own stocks, spreads and preserves. It's been a long time since I've included "don't fill up on the wonderful bread" in a review, but, seriously, take it easy with the crusty country-style bread.

Among the starters are a smoky split-pea soup with ham and bacon and a cream of root vegetable with smoked squash butter. We liked them both. There are a couple of flatbreads among the starters, too, one topped with leeks, porcini garlic spread and Emmentaler cheese; the other, which we tried, is a satisfyingly savory mix of pancetta, roasted garlic spread and fontina. But the toppings get swallowed up a bit in bread that's too puffy and thick.

SoBo's standout starter is the Cocktail Appetizer Platter, a witty plating of whimsical hors d'ouevres. Savory lamb meatballs are draped in a chili-mint sauce and pastry-wrapped duck sausage called "duckies-in-a-blanket" sit in an intense cherry mustard, laced with horseradish, which is good enough to spread on that good country bread.

The entrees at SoBo are still, with a few exceptions, what you'd call comfort food. They seem tamer than they were at the old SoBo, with less emphasis on creativity and more on careful preparation and diligent stock-making. The hard kitchen work is paying off. With our favorite dish, the chicken pot pie, you can taste the labor lavished on the generously flaky pastry covering and the deceptively simple filling of chicken shreds, peas, carrots and potatoes.

A roasted chicken entree is simple, too, but effective. There is crispy, herbed skin and thoroughly juicy meat to enjoy, but also a bed of meltingly moist jus-soaked bread stuffing and tenderly roasted, gently seasoned zucchini, eggplant and potatoes. The mushroom gravy judiciously spread over the fork-tender Salisbury steak tastes like it was made in the pan, a rare find these days. A maple-braised pork shank was not as good as its homey accompaniments — Maine Sunday beans, brown bread for sopping and roasted vegetables.

For dessert, there are go-to items like carrot cake and caramelized chocolate creme brulee. While our choices, a warm apple bread pudding with peanut brittle and especially a chocolate pudding, were both top-notch, dessert is when SoBo Cafe might want to throw diners a curveball — perhaps a dash of cayenne in the pudding.

The wholesome approach is working, but the shock of the horseradish in the cherry mustard is what's staying with me — maybe because it came across like a shot across the bow from the new SoBo Cafe. I'd like to see more of those.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

SoBo Cafe

Where: 6 W. Cross St., Federal Hill

Contact: 410-752-1518, sobocafe.net

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch on weekdays and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11; entrees, $13-$21

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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