Soif Wine, Cheese, and Tapas Bar
Entrées: Moderate ($8-$14)
357 North Shelmore Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
When I visited Soif, a tapas restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, the best of the small plates in rotation was the soup: a spring radish puree with feta, garlic, and shallots. This is not a knock on the rest of the menu. The soup was just that good, and it encapsulates what Soif is all about.
Owner Gail Summars has come from the Napa Valley to Mt. Pleasant's I'On neighborhood and opened a combination wine shop and restaurant with an avowed mission: to change the way we eat and drink. And that means small plates, which allows diners to sample many different things rather than filling up on a single oversized entrée, and reasonably-priced wine (bottles run from $24 to $73, with many by-the-glass selections for $6). Sharing is expected. And, most of all, Soif's philosophy pairs the small but top-notch selection with expert guidance. Both the wine shop and the restaurant offer a limited number of good — and often unexpected — options, along with plenty of help to guide guests through their choices.
If you like to be guided, your best dinner bet is the daily four-course chef's menu, which you can have paired with a half-glass of wine for each course ($30 food alone, $50 with wine pairings). If you go for the chef's menu, you should take the wine pairings, too. The courses (generally a soup, salad, "medium plate" entrée, and dessert) flow naturally together, and the wines are well-matched to highlight and enhance the flavors of each course while giving you a range of new tastes to try.
And the radish puree soup ($5) sums it all up. First, the presentation: it's a pale-pink soup with a sprinkling of diced red tomato, served in a small white cup atop a green cross of chives on a square white saucer — a simple, elegant presentation that matches the clean stylishness of the small dining room. Next, the ingredients: fresh spring radishes along with Split Creek Farm's feta from just up the road in Anderson. And, finally, the flavors: the radish puree is warm, rich, and creamy, and as you savor it you are hit with tiny popping bursts of feta and shallot. The taste and texture come together perfectly and leave you eager for the next course.
Soif's dishes are at their best when they strike this perfect blend of flavor and texture. The avocado and petit red beet salad with bacon lardons ($10) combines the tanginess of the beets and mandarin oranges with the bitterness of the greens and the dark smokiness of Nueske's bacon. The evening's special "medium plate," roasted quail with asparagus and raspberry gastrique ($12), features crisp, fresh asparagus drizzled with a sweet gastrique that merges nicely with the strong, slightly salty quail.
The dishes that don't quite work are missing this blend. The blue crab ravioli with lemon-roasted garlic aioli and basic cashew pesto ($12) offers a list of ingredients that sound can't-miss, but they don't quite meld — the pasta is a little too thick and firm, the crab flavorful but overpowered by the aioli and pesto.
What does work is the dessert selection featuring Boucheron goat cheese, warm lemon curd, and local honeycomb ($8), which you blend yourself following the helpful guidance of the server. Squeeze a slice of bruléed lemon over the cheese and the curd and the honeycomb, then scoop up a little of each into your spoon. The result is a sweet, creamy, citrusy mouthful with chewy bits of honeycomb and the sharp tang of raw goat cheese — a perfect capper to a meal that, like all of the small and medium plates, leaves you satisfied but not stuffed.
If you try Soif for yourself, you very likely won't be able to have any of these things. The menu changes every two weeks, and its selections draw largely upon what's fresh and in season nearby. Beets, radishes, asparagus, and strawberries featured prominently on my last visit, but that will likely change now that a new crop of spring vegetables is about to hit the local farmers markets.
Soif's space is as small as its plates. There are just six two-top tables (which can be combined to form four-tops as needed) in the small dining area, and Chef Bradley Grozis works alone in the tiny kitchen behind the glass cheese-and-sausage display case. (I'm told he's joined by a sous chef on weekends, but I'm not sure how the two of them fit back there.) Reservations are definitely recommended for weekend nights, though there are some additional tables out in the covered breezeway that separates the restaurant from the wine shop. An elegant courtyard in the back will open just in time for the warm weather, and it promises to be a delightful setting for enjoying a glass of wine and a few small plates with friends.