Celestial Solera

Long-awaited Tapas bar outshines the sun

Solera
900 Hennepin Ave. Minneapolis
612.781.6042

The one thing they never tell you about prognosticating and predicting, the one thing, is that you never quite believe it yourself.

Why, I remember way back when youth was upon us all like a blooming dew, when verily we each of us glowed like pop stars in a Jello vat in Ibiza, perhaps in the year 2000 or so, and I first started hearing about Solera. It was then that the twin thoughts rushed upon me: Yea, that it would Change Everything; and on its heels the haunting Oh No It Won't, It Can't.

Here's to Us (and Them): Reveling in restaurant nirvana at Solera
Bill Kelley
Here's to Us (and Them): Reveling in restaurant nirvana at Solera

The thinking behind that first bit was this: The partners behind Solera are Tim McKee and Josh Thoma. McKee is one of the most important chefs in the history of Minneapolis, a man with such a fine palate and such an exactingly high standard for the plates he sends out that D'Amico Cucina, Minneapolis's most expensive restaurant, is still coasting on the laurels he established for it nearly a decade ago, and La Belle Vie, the Stillwater restaurant that was his and Thoma's first project together, was so wonderful that it was like an oak tree in a mown prairie, so out of scale was it to anything else in the landscape.

Then, there was the Spanish thing. Anyone who's been tuned in to the national food press will have noticed that 2003 is turning into The Year We Noticed Spain. (The New York Times even declared a few weeks ago that Spain is the new France!) And yet, McKee has been working in the Spanish idiom for years; La Belle Vie was above all a fine-dining Tim McKee restaurant, but all the accents and curlicues were Spanish, with a bit of Moroccan spice executed with French technique. McKee worked with local importers to bring in the many Iberian ingredients that appeared on many of the most interesting menus of the last five years, in spots as diverse as Auriga or CoCo Cha Cha, and he also direct-imported many Spanish wines.

In fact, when Solera opened last spring, with the biggest by-the-glass sherry program in the country, and the New York Times ran a feature almost simultaneously describing sherry as a "beautiful wine" "exquisitely made," which was also an "unheralded bargain," I could only whistle in admiration while asking, "Are these guys psychic?" This was after I had known for years that McKee wanted to open a tapas spot, and had watched one after another tapas restaurant or tapas-like concept take off and find a foothold with local diners: La Bodega, the Sample Room, more.

And this was after my heart had stilled once or twice as piece of big news after piece of big news drifted across the ether: The Solera folks had successfully poached two of the Twin Cities highest-profile, most irreplaceable restaurant talents, namely Adrienne Odom, the playful and masterful pastry chef who was the one reliable delight in the entire Aquavit mess, and Bill Summerville, the front-of-the-house wine genius from Cucina.

This was after they lost a number of prominent downtown locations, but finally bought the ugly-duckling building that housed the ill-fated Backstage @ Bravo--a space, as they say, with potential: good location, downtown. But bad, too: unattached to the skyway and without parking. But above all, the building beside the Orpheum was Big, allowing for both big ambition and big crowds.

Look, I kept saying, we are going to get a restaurant that is Big in both senses, both important and ambitious, like a La Belle Vie, and popular, like a Buca. It is going to be affordable, it is going to be fun, it is going to be a place to take foodie friends to impress them, and it is going to be a place to meet your dorkiest relatives that they, too, will enjoy.

And yet, the haunting ghost: It Won't, It Can't. The problem will be them, the problem will be us. First, them: They'll never be able to get the prices down into an affordable, mid-level, Buca-competitive range. They'll never be able to make it consistent at that volume. They'll never be able to dumb down enough dishes to provide a sort of accessibility ramp to their high-level cooking.

And then, us: We won't get it. We won't be brave enough to try, we'll mock them from our deep intimidation, and blame them for it. We're going to be in a classic pearls-before-swine situation, except it will be a little more tapas before Ole and Lena. The inevitable dark ending? All of us, banished back to the caves of turkey Alfredo pizza, never allowed to hold our heads high ever again, ever ever ever.

And that's why I went into my first meal at Solera with something very much like dread. Appropriately enough, my first meal there was pretty much dreadful; everything was cold, stale, or terribly wrong. I took to my bed for a month. Later, I deduced that my first visit managed to coincide with a night when every principal player was offsite at a bigwig foodie event, and now, now in the half a dozen times I've been back since then, Solera's food has run the gamut from very good to breathtakingly marvelous, the pricing has remained happily, oh so happily, low, in the forgives-a-lot $30 to $40 a head for the whole kit and kaboodle of wine, dessert, tip, tax, and everything. The service has been cheery. The various dining rooms have charmed me in different ways. I have found the wine list to be truly magical, as it is both very cheap and very ambitious. And basically everything is as good as I could have ever predicted, except for the desserts, which are better than anyone could have dreamed.

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