Has it been cold enough for you? It is, of course, winter. Those few weeks of the year where the transplants we have down here laugh at us, as we chuckle ourselves, at the thought of being locked inside our homes because of a 7-foot snowdrift at our front door.
Different strokes for different folks, but it has been a wee bit chilly, y’all. The chili recipes are getting a workout, as are those stews. A lot of people, meanwhile, like to hide behind a bowl of good soup. I have found in my travels that, like wings, burgers or fried chicken, everyone has a favorite. You could ask 10 people where they get their favorite soup and you are very likely to get 10 different answers. Certainly a good problem to have if you enjoy variety.
But there is one Savannah soup that is very much a part of the city’s fabric. If you don’t know about it, then it is time you do.
SOHO South Cafe on Liberty Street between Bull and Whitaker has been in that spot for well over a decade. Back around the turn of the century (did I just write that?) it was a tiny little cafe nestled inside an art gallery-looking souvenir shop. A husband and wife team owned it and operated it. Like so many others, she was up front while he was making magic in the kitchen. SOHO South was one of those places that if you didn’t know, you’d walk by hundreds of times without giving it a second thought. I know from experience: I lived next door for a few years and never even so much as stuck my head inside for a minute.
SOHO had a following, eventually, that included me. Largely sandwiches and soups at lunchtime, it was a very comfortable spot for a meal. The most popular soup back then? Tomato Basil Bisque.
OK, great. A nice spot for lunch with a nice bowl of soup. Big deal, right? You can find that in a million spots around town. Including Goose Feathers Cafe, by the way. But rare is the occasion when a simple bowl of soup takes over a menu.
Years later, the husband and wife team behind SOHO were ready to move on. In walks Daniel Reed Hospitality (owners of Public Kitchen & Bar, Local11ten and Artillery) and the sale was done. Brandy Williamson, executive chef at DRH, admits she wasn’t exactly thrilled at first.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I didn’t want to take over a menu that was known for a soup.”
As the deal approached its final days, Brandy went to work in the SOHO kitchen.
“I was in the kitchen every day for about a month. Watching everything,” she says. “I wanted to see exactly how everything was made.”
The plan was never to overhaul the menu, not especially at first, because the best way to get a feel for what your established customers want is by watching what sells ahead of time. Brandy tells me when word leaked SOHO was being sold, the most common question was, “You are not going to remove the soup, are you?”
Brandy has no trouble admitting she wanted to move on to something else when it came to soup.
“I wanted to, but when you look at the numbers?” she says. “We sold 3,900 gallons of tomato basil soup last year.”
To give you an idea of how massive that is, she offers a comparison. “We do about eight gallons a day here. At Public, we maybe sell a gallon a day. Maybe,” she says. “At Local … maybe half that.”
Yeah, the Tomato Basil Bisque at SOHO South is a big deal.
“He had the recipes all in his head,” Brandy says, referring to the orientation she went through ahead of the sale. “It isn’t complicated at all, but I just wrote everything he was doing down.” So important was that recipe, it was included in the terms of the sale of the restaurant.
It would be easy to say the soup has taken on a life of its own, but it has been that popular for years. Online reviewers are usually suggesting that you try the soup.
“It’s there almost all the time,” Brandy says. “Ultimately if that is what brings people here to try us, then I’m all for it.” Hard to argue with that.
A server told me she guesses that roughly nine out of 10 of her lunchtime customers order the soup in some form, whether it be a cup alongside something else or a full bowl with a sandwich. Their most popular item at SOHO is the combo, the soup served with a wonderfully crispy grilled cheese sandwich and a pimiento aioli.
I’m surprised at how many people I talk to who don’t know about this soup. I guess when you live here long enough, you take the landscape for granted a little bit. SOHO is a beautiful space, as all of the Daniel Reed spaces are. Keep in mind, they are only open for brunch and lunch. No dinner.
I enjoyed a bowl of the Tomato Basil Bisque just last week and it is as wonderful as it was back at the turn of the century. Clearly, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and it is wonderfully tasty any time of the year. But before those temperatures start creeping back up, give it a try. I promise you will eat it and like it.
See you on TV,
SOHO SOUTH CAFE
Address: 12 W. Liberty St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Info: sohosouthcafe.com, 912-233-1633
Last call for our fried chicken and sparkling wine event Jan. 19 at the B Historic Hotel in Savannah. As I write this, we have less than 20 tickets left. We will sell out; $60 gets you all you can eat and drink.Want to know more about it? Go to eatitandlikeit.com.
Savannah Restaurant Week is coming! From Jan. 26-Feb. 5, you can visit any of a couple of dozen participating restaurants and try three courses for $30. It is a great way to enjoy some of those hard-to-reach restaurants, budget-wise. For more information, go to dining.savannahnow.com.
Looking for something different for Valentine’s Day weekend? Whiskey, Wine & Wildlife is a fantastic foodie event on Jekyll Island coming Feb. 9-12. Tickets and more information at whiskeywineandwildlife.com.
New episodes of my TV show, “Eat It and Like It with Jesse Blanco,” return Jan. 15. If you like this week’s story about soup, you will love what we have cooking for Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. on WSAV-TV.