Care taken in the kitchen makes the new Sobo Café a standout
Published: March 28, 2012
Sobo Café (6 W. Cross St.,  752-1518, sobocafe.net) had me at the bread. Made in-house, as is everything else at Anna Leventis’ new rendition of this longtime Federal Hill restaurant, the basket of ciabatta, tart and stretchy with a bubbly crumb and a substantial crust, is a harbinger of what the rest of your meal will be like: honest comfort food graced with little surprises here and there.
Who would think, for instance, that a modest squash curry ($15) might be the loveliest dish of the evening? Or that I would go home savoring the memory of the garden ranch salad ($7) laced with pickled onions and smoky lardons, bound together with a garlicky dressing, and large enough for a table of four to share? Clearly, time is being taken with the food here, and this, in turn, will make you want to linger.
So, too, will the cozy dining room, which on the night we dined accommodated several families with small children as well as couples having a night out. Local art decorates the pumpkin-colored walls, vases of purple tulips top each table, and though a television hangs above the bar that extends across one side of the dining room, the volume is either muted or masked by the quiet indie sounds—Elvis Perkins, Bon Iver, the Kings of Convenience—that make up the restaurant’s soundtrack. It’s all very low-key and very comfortable.
Sobo Café’s menu is confined to one page and, with few exceptions, reads like vintage diner fare meets bistro. There’s mac ‘n’ cheese and Salisbury steak; chicken, both roasted and tucked into a potpie; creamed kale, salmon rilletes, and spinach pie. Then there’s that squash curry, rich with chunks of butternut squash and a small island of delicate, anise-scented rice in the middle of a coconut-milk-infused broth that tastes both exotic and homey. From another corner of the globe comes Carolina-style chicken carnitas ($15), shredded chicken in a Carolina-style piquant barbecue sauce, with puffy, addictive, cheddar-infused papusas. On some menus, dishes like these would feel like a stretch, like a kitchen trying to do too much, but here they fit in with other ethnic offerings, like a rather dull feta dip ($7) or the Mediterranean-inflected cocktail appetizer platter ($10), where lamb meatballs are overshadowed by savory “duckies in a blanket,” house-made duck sausages wrapped in flaky pastry.
Sobo Caf also scores high on the price/quality ratio. Only the seared ribeye tops out over $20 (it’s $21). With that in mind, the maple-braised pork shank is truly a deal at $17. The silky meat is easily pulled off the bone and into the slightly sweet “Maine Sunday beans” that accompany it, but the star of the dish is, once again, bread: a moist cube of molasses-infused brown bread to be specific. With a little kitchen wizardry, it could make an unusual base for bread pudding.
Cornmeal-crusted trout ($18) turns out to be the plainest dish of the evening, but it is done simply and gracefully. A dab of smoked tomato remoulade and the accompanying hoppin’ john add a little welcome flash.
Like the bread, salad dressings, sauces, and relishes, all of Sobo Café’s desserts are made in house. I’m thoroughly tired of crème brûlée, but its prevalence on dessert menus suggests that I may be the only one. Sobo’s version, white chocolate and caramel ($6), won raves at our table, though I preferred the giant bowl of achingly rich chocolate pudding ($6) served with a peanut butter cookie. The restaurant also offers carrot cake and cinnamon-apple bread pudding.
Service at Sobo Café is casual, but our server clearly aimed to please, easily answering a range of questions from gluten concerns to draft offerings (there were four, including Brewer’s Art Resurrection and Heavy Seas’ Loose Cannon). Wines by the glass are fairly standard issue but decently priced at $7.
For a small, neighborhood restaurant trying to do a lot, Sobo Café does many things very well and at an affordable price. I wish there were more spots like it.
Sobo Café serves lunch Monday-Friday, brunch on Sunday, and dinner seven days. Comforted
> Email Mary K. Zajac