For the trio of longtime restaurant professionals behind the new restaurant SoDo — the name is a mash-up of South Downtown — the past offers both challenge and motivation.
The restaurant occupies part of the ground floor of sleekly renovated 275 Hill St., an office building lying, yes, just south of downtown Reno (and just north of West Liberty Street and California Avenue).
The first restaurant in the space, the eponymous 275 Hill, lasted about seven months, closing in December 2010 amid reports of uneven food and service. The next restaurant, the similarly (and perhaps unwisely) named Hill St. Grill, struggled after the departure this past spring of the couple running it.
These stumbles — along with the large, white 275 Hill sign that remained on the building (though now removed) — led to confusion about who owned the restaurant, what it’s name was and what was being served.
“We would be foolish as entrepreneurs not to acknowledge the other restaurants that were here before us,” said partner Joel Giandalia, until a few months ago the western regional manager for the Charlie Palmer Group. That said, “we are not them. They are one thing that has driven us even harder to provide a great experience for our guests.”
And to choose a name that had no conceivable connection — not even a hint — to numerals, hills or grills.
Giandalia’s partners in SoDo, which opened June 1, are two former Charlie Palmer colleagues: executive chef David Stern and front-of-house manager James Bukowski.
In fact, the Palmer Group partly fueled SoDo’s debut.
“I had a dream job, with a dream company, but I still didn’t have the final say,” Giandalia said. “Here, we do. I wrote in my goals in April of last year that I wanted to own my own business.”
In April of this year, Giandalia recruited Stern and Bukowski, and the trio settled on opening a restaurant that would combine approachable American cooking with international influences and the skills of a classically trained chef (more on the menu later).
The neighborhood — with plentiful parking, bungalows renovated into offices, and the surrounding downtown, old southwest homes, court buildings and high-rises — offered a rich mix of potential customers.
And if the premises had a history, well, that history could be overcome by good food, service and word-of-mouth, the partners reasoned.
“It doesn’t matter who was here before,” Bukowski said. “This restaurant is going to happen.”
SoDo encompasses about 70 seats inside and 50 on the terrace. Table sizes are now more varied, especially with the introduction of tables for two; the change allows SoDo to better accommodate parties of different sizes.
The kitchen has been redesigned from its earlier incarnations, increasing its production capability, chef Stern said.
The other afternoon, Stern and his sous chef, Elliott Baldridge, were sending out lunch items like a chef salad made unexpected by corn and black beans, a vegan wrap bulked up with hummus and quinoa, and tempura tiger prawns splashed with honey wasabi aïoli.
“The tempura batter gets passed through a chinois” — a fine strainer — “to get a smooth coating,” Stern said. “It makes the tempura nice and crisp without being too crisp.”
SoDo also offers an edited brunch menu that combines lunch mainstays like the vegan wrap, albacore tuna melt and SoDo burger jabbed by chipotle chutney with dishes made for the weekend.
One standout is the towering brunch sandwich built from a warmed croissant, two fried eggs, cheddar cheese, sliced avocado, spicy jalapeño bacon (will bacon wondrousness never cease?), and a snarl of crisp fried onions.
“We’re never going to build a business around brunch,” Stern said, “but we’d like to be thought of as open for it.”
The dinner menu showcases the international aspect of SoDo’s approach (the restaurant’s tagline is “Globally Inspired, Locally Crafted”). Main courses are grouped into seven styles.
Classics, among its four dishes, features grilled filet with roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus. Eastern Europe includes paprika chicken with potato pancakes. The Pacific category offers sea scallops sweetly soaking their bottoms in marinated strawberry salad.
Rack of lamb, from the Mediterranean section, is handled simply: seasoned, seared, finished in the oven.
Latin American-inspired salmon lounges on corn and black bean salsa. Below, roasted poblano beurre blanc awaits swiping; a topknot of crisp onions soaked in Tabasco crowns the fish, teetering.
The partners acknowledged the challenges in this approach, not least the question of authenticity.
“We’re not trying to be completely authentic — you don’t want to get into that,” the chef said.
We’re also not, Giandalia added, “trying to be a specialist in every region of the world. Just a specialist in those dishes we’re presenting. We’ll test something 20 times if we have to.”
The salmon, the partners said, is currently SoDo’s No. 1 seller, and customers have asked that its Tabasco onion garnish appear as a menu starter. It’s likely they’re going to have their requests honored.
“We cook for our guests,” chef Stern said. “I invite every customer to give me suggestions, something they’d like to see.”
Tempura tomato on a BLT? Kid’s grilled cheese? A New York steak seared as rare as bipartisan unity?
“We can do that,” Bukowski, the front of house manager, said. “You couldn’t do that in a 150-seat restaurant, but part of being in the neighborhood is catering to each person. We are not all things to all people, but we want to have something for everyone.”
Top of mind
As SoDo ends its first month in business, much lies ahead, of course.
New fixtures and acoustic work are on the way, as are photographs of historic Reno.
Think celebrity images from the Sky Room of the old Mapes Hotel, aerial shots of the 275 Hill building from the 1960s, and shots of the Riverside Hotel as a frame building and sporting its current brick facade.
The menu will change seasonally about four times a year, plus specials, but a new cocktail menu and wine list are scheduled to be introduced soon.
“I would love to have the wines shadow the menu. Spanish food, Spanish wines,” Bukowski said.
The goal, the partners said, is to join that cohort of restaurants locals consider when they’re planning to eat out.
Call it GoSoDo.