Longtime fans of the Deschutes Brewery’s gourmet comfort food may occasionally wonder, as I have: Whatever happened to Gene Soto?
He now has his own restaurant in Walla Walla.
Soto preceded Matt Neltner as executive chef at the Deschutes Public House, on Bond Street in downtown Bend, and the private Mountain Room, in the Colorado Avenue brewery. He was a fixture at the annual Sagebrush Classic, among many other events.
But in 2007, after seven years in Bend, Gene returned to Washington’s Yakima Valley, where he was raised.
He invested most of a year as chef at a restaurant called La Mesa, at the Desert Wind Winery in Prosser. There he met Katie Gonzalez, who has since become his business and life partner. Soon the couple turned their eyes toward the wine country of the Walla Walla Valley.
I was pleased to reconnect with Gene at “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” which he and Gonzalez opened in July 2008.
“We were initially geared toward more of a recreational cooking school,” said Soto, gesturing toward the cafe’s open demonstration kitchen. “We still offer classes a couple of times a month. But when the economy took a turn, we restructured and began serving meals.
“We started with lunch only, then added Saturday-Sunday brunch. Now we’re also doing dinners Thursday through Saturday, and we do a lot of catering.”
The cuisine that Gene now prepares isn’t as hearty as it was at Deschutes, where meaty meals dominated the menu. Someone’s in the Kitchen, on a quiet corner just two blocks from the Marcus Whitman Hotel, is far more vegetarian-friendly.
“We consider our food ‘Pacific Northwest eclectic,'” said the mild-mannered Soto, now 37. “With Whitman College in town, Walla Walla has a large vegetarian community. We try to cater to that community, and it serves us well. We are a healthy option.”
Sandwiches include a portabella mushroom, marinated in balsamic vinegar and grilled, and served with caramelized sweet onions, bleu cheese and toasted walnuts on gluten-free bread. A popular vegan dinner entree is Korean-style fried brown rice with tofu, eggplant, zucchini and tomato in a soy-citrus-garlic sauce.
Meat eaters enjoy a lunch menu that includes Crazy Clint’s meatloaf, a blend of beef and pork stuffed with spinach and eggs, served as an open-face sandwich. There’s also pulled chicken, barbecued with black coffee and served on ciabatta bread with a green apple-cabbage slaw.
I especially liked the grilled Asian ahi with sambal aioli, mandarin-ginger marmalade and clover sprouts on homemade multi-grain bread.
Next time you’re in Walla Walla, stop by the restaurant and tell Gene Soto that you missed him.
Someone’s in the Kitchen: 132 W. Rose St., Walla Walla; 509-240-6388, http://www.sitkwallawalla.com.
Brunch [$6.95-$10.95] 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Lunch [$8.95-$13.95] 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Dinner [$8.95-$18.95] 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.