The latest buzz generator in downtown Orlando restaurants is Soco, the first "from scratch" restaurant from Thornton Park Restaurant Group. TPRG also has Cityfish, which it acquired from Urban Life Restaurant Group. Soco — the name means Southern contemporary — is also the first restaurant where Greg Richie can claim top billing. Richie is a partner in TPRG and is also Soco's executive chef (Cityfish's, too, but more about that another time). Previously, he was leading the kitchen at Emeril's Tchoup Chop for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and before that he opened the Restaurant Row Roy's, named for Roy Yamaguchi.
Although both of those restaurants might be called chef driven, Soco is the first where Richie is clearly behind the wheel.
But let me stop here. As I've mentioned in previous articles about Soco, TPRG is a client of Scott Joseph Company's consulting services, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to offer a review. So here's what I've done instead: At the annual gala for the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, I was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Actually, dinner with me was the auction item. And there were three bidders who matched the "buy it now" price. For its part, Soco donated the dinners.
My dinner companions on the first visit were Arlen and Diane Chase, archeologists with UCF. On the second visit I was joined by John and Rita Lowndes and Mike and Marian Peters. John, of course, is the Lowndes of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor and Reed; Rita is the force of nature behind Orlando Shakes. Mike is the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist who draws the Mother Goose and Grimm strip. I recorded their comments through the dinners.
First let's talk about the interior. As you may know, Soco occupies the popular corner space that was previously HUE Restaurant. HUE, you'll recall, was bar centric, and the actual bar dominated the central part of the space. But that's changed with Soco. With a chef driven restaurant, it made more sense for the dining room to be the focus, and where once there was a back bar there now is a window into the kitchen area.
Don't worry — there's still a bar, and a very pleasant one. But now it's off to one side (hang a left when you walk through the door). And the patio that was always a favorite "see and be seen" spot among HUEgonauts is again full on these pleasant evenings. (Sunday afternoons, too, now that Soco is serving brunch.) The design, by the Gravity Company, has bucolic touches, such as the rustic wood tabletops, blended with contemporary elegance, such as the diaphanous draperies that hang from the double-volume ceiling.
Richie's menu is not straightforward Southern cuisine but rather a contemporary take on classic dishes. For my taste (not that we're interested in my opinion here), the cassoulet of duck confit best epitomizes the menu. It is a classic cassoulet, but is made Southern and contemporary with boiled peanuts instead of beans. Brilliant.
But it's the Soco-style "Chicken and Dumplings" from the Small Plate menu that is proving to be the runaway hit. Carved chicken breast is paired with lobster filled raviolilike dumplings in a soy butter sauce. Rita called then "the most unusual and amazing chicken and dumplings" she had ever had. "Nobody would really recognize them as chicken and dumplings," she added. Mike Peters agreed: "I wish I could have that for a full dinner."
John Lowndes declared the Crab-stuffed Deviled Duck eggs to be his favorite, while Marian Peters said she loved her Truffle-infused Steak Tartare. "If you don't like truffle you wouldn't want it, but I love truffles," she said.
For her entree Marian had the Hot-Smoked Florida Cobia, served atop a buttermilk potato cake with black-eyed pea tomato salsa, which she also liked (especially the potato cake, she said). The Chases, John and Mike all enjoyed the meatloaf, which is also another runaway best seller. "My mother was a great cook," said Mike, "and she made great meatloaf. But this was the best I've ever had."
Rick Schell, who also joined us, had the Chicken-fried Cauliflower Steak, which features a full cross-section slice of cauliflower dredged in flower and fried a la fried chicken. "It doesn't deserve to be called vegetarian," Rick joked. "It was delicious."
Both Marian and Rita were taken with the salt caramel sauce that is served with the Potato-Crusted Chocolate Cake. John and Mike both preferred the Bourbon Banana Pudding, served with vanilla wafer waffles and toasted meringue. (Marian found that one to be too much work.)
And me? I like the Warm Apple and Oatmeal Spice Cake with a peppercorn whiskey syrup. Diane agreed with me on this one.
But again, we're not interested in what I have to say here. And if you find these comments to be just as questionable, I would encourage you to read what some other reviewers have had to say, including Rashmi Primlani of the Primlani Kitchen, Tasty Chomps, and the Orlando Weekly.
Soco is at 629 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner daily and brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-849-1800.