My very first experience with Sotano was not a good one. But this new restaurant from the owners of the popular Caveau restaurants had come highly recommended, and we decided to give Sotano a second chance.
The verdict? We found it completely worthwhile.
Sotano is a striking example of a restaurant that casts the net wide. Most restaurants opt for a focused, one-dimensional approach that increases their likelihood of success, while those who try to do too much often fail to live up to expectations. At first glance, I found Sotano’s multiple menus to be alarming. Cocktail, breakfast, sushi, tapas – and that’s not even including the main menu and the wine list – how could anyone pull off such an ambitiously varied collection?
Much like a well-made paella, Sotano features many distinctive elements which – if handled correctly – work together as a cohesive and spectacular whole. And Chef Russell Jalil’s Spanish Paella (R 140) is a case in point. It’s hearty without being overdone. It’s also a perfect medley of textures which depends on constant vigilance and the precise timing of ingredients. And owing to that same exactitude, it is a sumptuous feast for the senses with its pops of fresh colour and peppery aroma. The story goes that a gentleman staying at La Splendida, having tried Chef Jalil’s paella, came back to Sotano for the same meal every day for the duration of his stay.
In accordance with the paella theory, the tapas menu is varied but not overplayed, managing to keep a cohesive pan-Mediterranean profile on its own with the robust use of spices throughout. There’s the Calamari a la Plancha (R 48) with its kick of chilli and a layer of smokiness lent by the addition of chorizo. The Beef Bourguignon offers a successful balance of satisfying chunks in a thick broth that begs for a companion glass of Pinot Noir or Cab Sauv. Although the Fish & Chips (R 110) in the main menu may sound plain, it is actually quality kingklip made gloriously light and crispy by the coating of light lager beer batter with herbs.
The real clincher is the sushi menu, and I say this as someone who is generally not a fan of the typical mayo and teriyaki sauce deal one finds in Cape Town. There is no hint of sloppiness in appearance nor in flavour. It is creative in a way I’ve really only seen outside of South Africa. The Bamboo Rolls (R 68) are cucumber logs filled with salmon-wrapped prawn rolls, and the salmon roses (R 75) are actually what they purport to be: beautiful origami-like arrangements of creamy salmon in a brilliant shade of red attesting to its freshness, along with what must surely be a perplexing idea to all other sushi spots – that avocado should be a complementary detail instead of a filler ingredient. Fancy that. Sotano is also the first place I have seen offering a decent selection of linefish sushi should anyone wish to move on from tuna and salmon and more tuna.
Last but not least, the paella theory can also be applied to the restaurant as a whole. Nestled into an opportune vantage point at Mouille Point – one that involves a generous view of the ocean and the iconic lollipop lighthouse – Sotano could easily be like the other establishment in the area, playing a gamble between food and scenery or between casual and serious. Instead, it pulls off all the elements. Owing to its carefully curated menus, patrons can nibble from a portion-conscious tapas menu with a beer or two, enjoy heftier drinks at the secluded bar in the back, sample cocktails and sushi under umbrellas overlooking the ocean, or have a full meal complete with wine in the sunken “downstairs” area inside. You’ll see everyone from couples on dates and families to young working professionals taking advantage of the loungy downstairs area for their lunch meetings. It appears Mouille Point is no longer just a destination for tourists and promenade joggers.
Now I know what you’re going to say: what about that first visit? Did Sotano make a comeback? Well put it this way. Having given it a second chance, I would now happily recommend anyone to become a regular at Sotano. You’ll always find something to suit your mood and when you’ve finally tried everything on their menu, you can always go back for more of – you’ve guessed it – that exemplary paella.
by Esther Lim