The formerly bland culinary land of I’On has suddenly become home to of one of Charleston’s best new restaurants with the welcome arrival of the impeccable Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar. Soif, which is the French word for “thirst”, simultaneously sates epicurean and oenophile appetites for excellent fare matched with excellent wine.
Sure, we have plenty of that around town (thank goodness!), but Soif delivers the goods with a light, expertly informed service staff, each without an ounce of boorish pretense, and Soif’s fair prices don’t require taking out a second mortgage. Though Soif is billed as a “bar”, its easy, sit-down dining pace and quiet, sophisticated ambiance make it feel more like a restaurant; a heralded one at that.
Soif veritably sparkles with a palpable, edible and drinkable energy of love and happiness which, the clarity of the fabulous food and wine not withstanding, is a big part of what makes dining here pure pleasure, from start to finish. Credit has to go to owner Gail Summars, who picked up and left her Napa vineyard, Haru Ranch, after falling in love with I’On and Charleston. “I just love Charleston. It reminds me of a small San Francisco,” exudes Summars. At first, she opened the wine shop, but when the space next door become available, she snapped it up to create the restaurant, thereby fulfilling a “lifelong dream to create a little cafe”.
Her matriarchal warmth infuses the dining room and seems to fill her small staff to the brim with ease as they go about their impressive work. She picked them carefully. Grozis had to prepare lunch for Summars in her home using just a microwave and a toaster before he got the Soif chef gig. The general manager was formerly at Cru Cafe and is considering going to school for her sommelier credentials and Soif’s head server created the wine list at Meritage before coming on board. Aside from the staff’s wealth of experience, “They understand my vision, that’s why it works so well,” says Summars.
Whatever the behind-the-scene reasons, Soif works. Coral and red hued walls and neat white trim on the tall windows grace Soif with a combination of Californian and international charm. Great attention is shown to details in the crisp, geometrically shaped white plates and delicate glassware. At center stage of the intimate,50-seat restaurant is the closet-sized kitchen where chef Bradley Grozis, formerly at The Osprey Grill at The Sanctuary, works his palatial-sized magic. The classically-charged menu of small and large plates ($5-$12) changes weekly and includes a 5-course chef’s selection menu ($35 or $60 with paired wines).
We opted for the versatility and relative frugality of the chef’s menu (which we shared at no extra cost), but not before diving into a bowl of Grozis‘ chunky/smooth duck pate special ($8) infused with confetti-like shreds of roasted onion. Served with briny Lebanese olives and salty, crisp French cornichons, it was unforgettable. The server paired it with a snappy, light Pinot Noir that, like all the pairings we sampled, brought out the best in both the food and wine; waltzing inextricably between the two elements as effortlessly and beguilingly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The hot soup of the day, a “roasted vegetable puree”, arrived shortly thereafter in white demi–tasse cups presented at the center of a chive “X” imposed on square white plates. Steamy and soothing deliciousness, the soup was a frothy blend of mild root vegetables with asparagus and potato overtones. It whet our appetites for the next course, a duo of Mushroom and Goat Cheese Crostini and Poached Pear with Gorgonzola with Mint Crostini. Thin slices of shitake and pear that tasted like they’d been sauteed and poached, respectively, in a light, white wine were arranged on the diagonal atop crispy toasts and garnished with the acid-smooth bite of fresh goat cheese and a mild Gorgonzola. The bites of fresh mint served with the pears was an unusual, refreshing and ultimately winning addition to the plate.
Another unusual combination, parsnip with asparagus and smoked salmon, was a head-turner; mine practically spun off my neck with joy. Grozis roasted a square-shaped spear of sweet parsnip, lining it up with a spear of smoky, grilled asparagus and wrapped it all up with fresh, salmon smoked with the sweetness of Applewood bacon. The kicker was the lightly mounted mustard and red wine cream sauce served with it which brought this dish together like a marriage made in epicurean heaven.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, our server brought out the seared duck breast fanned across a rectangular plate atop a raspberry gastrique sauce and alongside a golden mound of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Paired with a pert Newton Chardonnay, this was the brightest star of the evening in a dining sky that was already exploding with them and goes down as the best thing I’ve eaten in 2007 – bar none. The subtly of the sauce, a reduction of raspberry vinegar, perhaps infused with more fresh fruit, and caramelized sugar was majestically subdued; the perfect foil for the meaty, pink and exquisite duck. What else could be better with such carnivorous ambrosia than a cloud of mashed potatoes harboring a wispy fragrance of roasted garlic and creamery butter? Nothing!
Soif’s take on a cannoli, this one more of a crepe filled with pistachio imbued cream, mounted and folded with crispy chunks of roasted pistachios, came close. Grozis dressed the plate with a milk chocolate ganache and our server expertly paired it with a Port-Cabernet blend and a rich, sweet Muscat, which the server selected for me since I don’t like Port.
Summars has more than met her expectations to create a great little neighborhood cafe serving great food, aritisanal cheeses, and a great selection of California and international wines. In just three months, she and her stellar staff have surpassed all of them and entered the realm of excellence on all fronts. One can only forecast a very bright future for Charleston’s latest restaurant star.
Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar
357 North Shelmore, Mount Pleasant
Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. – until
(Note: Wine shop next door is open during the restaurant’s hours of operation. Patrons can select bottles at the shop to be opened in the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee.)