Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
After an impressive debut early last year, SO Restaurant-Bar continues to stand among our favorite local spots to dine. From appetizers to dessert, service to setting, the eatery was just about perfect on a recent outing.
Located on Kavanaugh in the space long occupied by the Living Room, it's the picture of casual elegance. Valet parking, to mitigate against what can be a perilous stretch of road, greets diners. Inside, the setting is warm and inviting. Rock and mortar walls and polished concrete floors compliment the dark-brown-stained exposed ceiling beams, glossy tabletops and fashionable cabinet work. A large marble-top bar sits in the center of the restaurant. Downstairs, there's a sleek lounge area.
The menu, largely unchanged since opening, remains delectable. Fresh seafood, flown in weekly, is the star, but there are dozens of formidable points of entry for any size meal — inventive appetizers, spirited salads, gourmet sandwiches, hearty entrees and mouth-watering desserts.
In all of our visits to SO, we've never failed to order the fried green tomato crabcake ($13), an inspired stacking of two of the best in the pantheon of round Southern foods, made all the better with a spicy remoulade sauce drizzled atop. The fried cheese wedges ($8), familiar to anyone with children as a gourmet “cheese stick,” filled with a cheese blend and fried deep and golden, were a recent revelation.
Most of the salads on the menu seem to have been concocted with summer and the restaurant's open-air deck seating in mind. Fruit figures prominently — pineapple salsa, citrus sesame vinaigrette, Asian pear, mango. We sampled the Oakville ($9), a sweet — but not cloyingly so — salad we'd eat everyday in the summer if we could. Frisee, a lettuce with long leaves and a nutty, peppery undertone, laid the foundation. The supporting cast: a healthy dose of mint, walnuts, chopped Asian pears, chunks of gorgonzola and a tangy apple cider vinaigrette dressing.
For entrees, seafood dishes have a disproportionate hold on the menu next to red meat, chicken and pasta. But the fish-wary will not be lost. The champagne pan-fried chicken ($19) must be two inches thick, but moist and savory. There are tender steaks, the New York Strip ($38) and the primo Louis filet ($34), which actually comes topped with a dollop of lump crabmeat, not to mention doused in a creamy Chardonnay sauce.
But who doesn't like seafood? Seared tuna, pan-fried halibut and blackened red snapper all feature prominently, but do yourself a favor, particularly in the summer months, and sample the chilled seafood. There is a crab platter ($36), with meaty cracked Alaskan crab legs, for those who know exactly what they want. For more catholic seafood lovers, there are three platters, designed to feed one ($38), two ($75) or four ($105). Each comes with an abundantly fresh assortment of lobster, crab legs, peel 'em and eat 'em shrimp, coaster-sized East Coast oysters and mussels. Don't order the platter if you have proprietary tablemates; you'll definitely stretch into their territory with the giant metal serving dish and carousel of table-made cocktail sauce, shallot vinegar and horseradish.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum, the shoestring golden fries, which come standard with most of the more casual offerings — the jumbo fried shrimp ($16), tasty mini-burgers ($9) Halibut fish tacos ($12) and steak frites ($28) — are among the best in town. Served teeming out of white cup, they're crispy with just the right amount of grease.
For dessert, you'd be foolish not to order the chocolate sack, a bizarre and decadent treat that surely came to its creator in a dream, or else in a fit of the munchies. Inside a frozen 5-6 inch-tall box-like chocolate sack, marshmallow, melted chocolate, raspberry and strawberry compote, graham cracker, pistachio, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream and homemade honey ice cream mingle together. As the melting intensifies and the layers blur, every now and then you get that fully unified bite. And things start to get fuzzy.
As to the service, we've never had better. Knowledgeable and solicitous, but hardly overbearing, our waiter went above and beyond. When one of our companions devoured his meal a little to aggressively and splashed sauce on his favorite shirt, our waiter noticed him briefly picking at the stain and quickly brought over Club Soda and a washcloth. When he cleared the appetizers, our mate, a clean-plate devotee, noticed that a bite of cheese wedge remained and asked to have the plate back. The waiter apologized, said he'd already stacked a plate on the wedge and promised to bring us another. Within five minutes, another person, a manager perhaps, brought out an entirely new plate of the appetizer.
An initial stab at setting itself apart as a truly late-night upscale eatery — with hours stretching to 2 a.m. on the weekends — has been curtailed a bit. But unlike most of its peers, SO still serves until 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on the weekend.