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Jesse Houston - Ray-Scott Miller

Sophomore Spanish promises upper class cuisine

By JACK WEATHERLY

The latest restaurant in the District at Eastover has a name that is a bit taco in cheek, you might say.

It’s called the Sophomore Spanish Club. It will open next month and take the place of the Cantina Laredo, an upscale restaurant that closed Feb. 25.

The eatery will have a self-effacing name, but owner Ray-Scott Miller and chef de cuisine Jesse Houston have already teamed up to create another whimsically named restaurant, Fine & Dandy, which features craft cocktails and fancy burgers.

It’s located across the small green space from where the Spanish Club will be located.

Rather than just giving the old Cantina a fresh coat of paint and calling it neuvo, the team redesigned the space, with even more outdoor dining emphasis than its predecessor, which had a parting of the ways with Breck Hines and Ted Duckworth, developers of the 585,000-square-foot mixed use development between Meadowbrook Road and Eastover Drive along Interstate 55.

Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc. opened the eatery in July 2017 and closed it less than two years later.

When the closing was announced, Hines said: “We’ve come to understand that independent, local restaurant concepts are better for this market and more closely aligned with our vision”

Fine & Dandy evidently filled that bill.

Dining outside, when possible, is a Latin American  sign of friendliness, Miller said.

Miller says the idea for Sophomore Spanish is “cultural appreciation, rather than cultural appropriation.”

When he visits Latin America with his wife, Sonia Valerio Miller, a native of Honduras, they “typically eat outside.”

To emphasize that in the new restaurant, a new entrance brings diners in through the patio.

Chef de cuisine Jesse Houston is a native of Texas and has a deep appreciation of Tex-Mex, which is the basis for the menu, with strong Latin influences, Miller said.

A core asset will be a true charcoal grill, he said.

While the menu has not been quite settled, certain elements are already decided. And, of course, it will have the staples: fajitas, combo platters and so on.

There will be a raw bar, with oysters, “citrusy fish” and octopus. Beverages will include fresh juices, beer, margaritas and other drinks under the guidance of Jonathan Webb., director of beverages.

Miller, Houston and Webb hold those positions at Fine & Dandy. Asked how they could double up at the new place, Miller said that the key is hiring more managers. The new eatery will hire between 120 and 150, he said.

Miller started his career as a dishwasher at Fratesi’s, a small Italian restaurant in Ridgeland.

He later hooked up with legendary John Currence at the City Grocery in Oxford, one of the James Beard Award-winner’s many restaurants and later attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Miller, of course, loves food, but he expects his interviewer to believe that he “didn’t have what it takes to be a chef.”

Still, “I have been at every position in a restaurant,” he says.

You might say he knows the whole enchilada.

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About Jack Weatherly