In the nearly four years since the low-slung building that used to house Off the Vine has been closed, the space at Hampton and Columbia avenues sat dark and empty, acquiring cobwebs. Nearly three weeks after it has reopened, 2605 Hampton Avenue, now known as SOHA Bar & Grill, is still rather dark. Cobwebs are present, too, but so are glittery skulls and other Halloween-themed decorations. And it's been anything but empty.
SOHA Bar & Grill is on its way to filling the gap between near south city's standard bar-and-grill grub (Bruno's American Grill and Pub and Joey B's on the Hill, right across the street) and nicer sit-down restaurants (Trattoria Marcella and Stellina are also close) by aiming to nail down that squirmy gastropub concept by providing, in SOHA-speak, "quality American fare." And, yeah, they know: It isn't technically in Southampton, but Clifton Heights Neighborhood Bar & Grill doesn't lend itself to a snappy acronym. That'd be more like CHNBAG, and that sounds...gross.
The inside of the one-room area is indeed still dark, though that's offset a bit by a gas fireplace. Better lit are the seats up at the horseshoe-shaped bar, each of its three sides within easy view of plenty of televisions. Old-school accents are found in the (huge) Kerr Mason jars used for water glasses and the long shuffleboard table, while newer toys include Big Buck Hunter HD and a digital jukebox.
The food at SOHA is at its best when it hews close to crowd-pleasing favorites but shakes it up just enough to be interesting. Across the street, there are fried mozzarella and Provel sticks with marinara; here it's fried goat-cheese medallions, which bring six lightly breaded, half-dollar-size circles over a scattering of field greens with sweet-onion dressing for dipping. On the other side of Hampton Avenue, cheese sticks aren't melt-in-your-mouth fare. On this side, they are.
And there's the "SOHA Big French Dipper," which is advertised as being "double dipped" in jus. The literal undoing of many French dip sandwiches is the one tough bite that results in awkwardly dragging out all the meat at once, leaving a mushy, naked bun. This prime rib is tender, easily -- mercifully -- breaking away from the rest of the sandwich. And despite the whole thing being "double dipped," the bread somehow remains soft and chewy, not soggy, which is a remarkable step in sandwich dynamics. All sandwiches are served with steak fries, which nobody would mistake for homemade, but it is nice that they're not called "frites" for a change.
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