Sometimes, though, a restaurant looks good and has good food. Amazing, huh? Such is the case for the striking 88-seat SoHo Bistro Chinese Cuisine, which opened in July in Charlotte's second tallest office tower, the Hearst building. (The restaurant entrance is off College Street.) Mao Lin owns the business and manages his kitchen staff while daughter Lou Lin manages the front of the house.
The interior is upscale Asian spa: calming and reflective. The menu, in English, offers a mix of Asian cuisines. Most of the dishes are Chinese cuisines: Cantonese, Hunan, Shanghai, and Mandarin. Dishes, though, are the usual Chinese/Americanized offerings: sha cha, General Tao, wontons, Mongolian beef, Hunan chicken, sweet and sour, lo mein. SoHo also offers a smattering of other popular Asian cuisines, such as teriyaki chicken and seaweed salad from Japan, and mee krob and curries from Thailand. Pleasantly, SoHo has a brief wine list in addition to a beer list. The service staff is aware, charming, and focused.
If you judge a restaurant from its lowliest offering, then SoHo Bistro wins a blue ribbon with its Egg Drop Soup. Soups, instrumental in Cantonese cuisine, are considered yun, a soothing food that helps to restore the equilibrium and overall harmony of the body's life balance: yin and yang. Egg Drop soup is one of the first foods a child is fed in China and one could understand a lifelong affection for it if it tastes half as good as the one from the kitchen at SoHo. Here it is a marvelous pool of goodies: fragments of cooked egg adrift in a delicate, yet rich, nourishing stock.
You could stop right there. But you shouldn't, since the kitchen delivers other Asian appetizer classics with equal finesse. Thai Mee Krob, called here "chicken lettuce wrapture," is presented in a gentrified fashion with lettuce cups resembling lotus blossoms filled with a savory chicken mixture. Another starter offers slices of crunchy cool cucumber drizzled with a moderately spiced sauce. The steamed delicate pork dumplings are so full of flavor they demand triple dipping. You won't have leftovers of your starters.
The kitchen falters a bit, however, with the entrees. These are good, just not as good as the appetizers. The Thai curry lacked layered flavor and is cluttered with extraneous vegetables. The tangle of pan-fried noodles embedded with shrimp and scallops lacked oomph.
Dinner entree prices range from $7.50 for broccoli and garlic sauce to $15.95 for Mahi Mahi. Most lunch entrees are under $7.
SoHo is a realized dream for the Lin family, which moved to the US from Canton, China. Mao Lin opened his first Chinese restaurant in Fayetteville, NC in 1995. After daughter Yan Lin became a student at UNCC, the family relocated to the Charlotte area and opened a small takeout Chinese restaurant in Harrisburg in 1997. But the family wanted to offer more "cosmopolitan" food, subsequently sold the business, and opened this full-scale restaurant downtown. Said Yan Lin, "People are more country in Harrisburg and did not want sushi or any new dishes. Downtown is much better."
Although the downtown SoHo Bistro does not serve sushi, the Lin family is building another and larger SoHo Bistro in Dilworth's Latta Pavilion, which is scheduled to open in four or five months. Daughter Yan Lin will manage that location which will have a similar menu, but will also include a sushi bar.
SoHo Bistro Chinese Cuisine works hard to ably please a certain customer, with varying degrees of authenticity. And why not? In Charlotte, authenticity does not fill up the cash drawer and a full cash drawer is the best fortune of all. That beats cookies any day.
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