Having heard and read good things about Soho's lunch buffet and convivial nighttime atmosphere, there was no real mystery to the prospect of dinner at the Hudson eatery — until we got there.
What we found were complex board games being played by patrons at four of the dining room tables, and some menu items that lent an aura of wonder as to what they might involve.
We delved deep into an opening cocktail and explored our options, determined to avoid the usual and bring on the unknown.
But first we needed to start with something with which and of which we knew what to do and expect.
No mystery there. Amid the quiet but intense competition of Lords of Waterdeep being played at nearby tables (Restaurant gaming: a great idea for nourishment and play at tables large enough to serve food and field the games.) we started with a couple of fine appetizers — one from the Chinese side and one from the Japanese side of the varied menu.
Chicken Soong ($7.25) is a favorite of ours — minced chicken meat, seasoned with bits of vegetables and water chestnuts, served with large crispy iceburg lettuce leaves for wrapping, and some tangy hoison sauce for adornment.
While we enjoyed our drinks and appetizers, my eye kept coming back to the menu mystery. Did I dare?
I couldn't decide.
Our other appetizer was a standard medium-sized plate of sushi, a Midori Roll ($9.95), featuring eight rolled bites of spicy avocado and cucumber and other spiced bits rolled in sticky rice and topped with a thick slice of raw salmon. Just our style, with some crispy wontons dipped in sweet sauce and a little spicy Chinese chili oil for the proper kick on the sushi.
But, on the entrees, did I dare? Did I have the courage to order, basically, what might be behind door number 1or 2 or 3? A shot in the dark? The masked menu item?
We continued to consider all possibilities, of which there are more than 100 on a wide-ranging menu that places regular entrees from about $10 (a vegetable dish) to $30 (Peking Duck) and beyond (for lobster dinners). Most entrees are in the $15 range, and include all the usual offerings of chicken, beef, seafood, pork and vegetables found in the plethora of Asian eateries around southern New Hampshire.
My companion joined in the adventure with a slight leap, too, by ordering a homemade basket full of food. The Seafood Flower Basket ($16.95) is a noodle "basket", crispy around the outside and moist in the middle (where the sauce settles), with a healthy serving of a good variety of fresh vegetables and seafood.
Inside the basket were large thick chunks of lobster and crab meat, sea scallops and shrimp, along with hefty cut portions of broccoli, onion and peppers. The chef's "special sauce," however, we found to be lacking, both in quantity and quality. There was hardly enough sauce to get a proper fix on the flavor, or to spread the sauce across the basket. It is a large entree, however, and the half that we brought home was wonderful when properly dressed up with a supplementary sauce and microwaved.
I had by this time already accepted the mystery, taken the plunge, and ordered it, so it is time to share with our faithful readers the result of the adventure.
Soho Bento ($19.95) is described on the menu as "A dinner box with different assortments." Period. End of description.
There was certainty that it was a Japanese dish, but that was about it. (It was listed under Japanese entrees.)
A nice small salad with outstandingly creamy ginger dressing accompanied my entree, along with a small bowl of very normal (nearly bland) Miso soup.
The Soho Bento "box" was almost exactly that, a rectangular serving plate, with vertical sides and partitions, divided into five sections with a separate serving in each, and a very small, sixth slot for the standard accompaniment of sliced fresh garlic and a mound of wasabi.
Inside one section were two fried Peking Ravioli. Another held two long, deep-fried Shrimp Tempura. A larger section contained six Chu Maki spicy rice rolls just like the Midori rolls minus the salmon. Another section contained a half dozen slices of raw salmon and maki tuna atop shredded carrots. In the fifth main section of the box was a delicious sesame seaweed salad with delicate Japanese noodles atop a small bed of lettuce.
While the ordering was a mystery, there was certainly no mystery to the food. It was pretty much a standard, assorted Japanese entree, and all the ingredients were up to par — crispy breading on the shrimp; a nice thin consistency on the ravioli casing, cooked to slightly crispy with a warm pork mixture at the center; sushi at a cool room temperature and not overly sticky rice; salmon and tuna on the side of the sushi rolls.
The remarkable section of the Bento box was the seaweed salad, a distinctively flavorful mixture of sauce and sesame seeds and delicately shredded seaweed.
But nothing was really that remarkable about the entire entree, for the price. We would suggest that Soho serve the seaweed salad separately, in place of the accompanying house salad, and use the fifth section of the box for a more substantial offering ... something exotic (found elsewhere on the menu) such as broiled freshwater eel over a bed of seasoned rice. Or perhaps Tubiko (fish roe) and Quail Egg over white rice mixed with bits of smoked salmon. Or ... well, the list could go on and on.
For the mystery and the risk, we'd expect a more substantial return.
As it was, we were pleased with Soho, and might return for the $8.95 lunch buffet when we're in the neighborhood.