Solera's sun rises again

Spanish eatery offers more than just a great rooftop

Solera's sun rises again
E. Katie Holm
A lighter touch and a few old favorites: Beluga lentils with poached egg and toasted brioche. Take the tour.

"We'll have an order of those, please," I said, scanning my finger down Solera's tapas list. "And then—"

"I'm going to stop you there," our waiter said. "That'll be enough to get you started." He flipped his notepad shut and lifted the menu from my hand as I took one last, longing look at the Verdura Frito I was being denied. For all the times I've had a server try to upsell me on an appetizer, or tack a side of onions rings onto my burger, I've never had one cut me off. What did he think? That we were going to get fat?

I wasn't trying to be a glutton—not yet, at least. (That would come later, when I got the chance to order multiple desserts.) I was simply trying to experience a wide swath of Solera's menu to discern how it had weathered several major changes. After eight years in business, the restaurant relaunched this spring with a new chef, new dishes, and new management, the Graves Hospitality Co., which also owns the nearby Graves 601 hotel.

Solera head chef Jorge Guzman
E. Katie Holm
Solera head chef Jorge Guzman

Location Info

Map

Solera Restaurant & Event Center

900 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Details

Solera Cocina de España
900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.338.0062; www.solera-restaurant.com
appetizers $4-$10; entrées $19-$28

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When Solera debuted, the place was a game-changer. It was Tim McKee and Josh Thoma's second restaurant venture—La Belle Vie was still in Stillwater—and our first serious tapas place. At the time, the Twin Cities dining scene was still stuck in second gear, and Solera's ability to make culinary ambition more populist was one of the factors that helped shift it into third.

La Belle Vie's well-heeled guests sometimes arrived in limousines, and Solera's did too—except that its chauffer-driven clientele were more likely suburban bachelorette parties crammed in tube top to tube top, and headed straight up to the roof deck. Solera's funky design details and colorful splashes made it feel far less stuffy than La Belle Vie. It was a place for having fun and being festive—and also eating well. Solera's multilevel space accommodated both fine dining and budget-conscious snacking, as well as drinking and dancing and corporate events. But after the recession hit, Solera struggled to fill two floors' worth of private-party spaces. Simultaneously, McKee and Thoma's partnership was disintegrating. In lieu of closing Solera's doors, McKee and Thoma turned over the keys.

After a brief redecorating, Solera's dining room looks less Gaudí (read: less gaudy) than traditional. Heavy dark leather chairs and square, copper-topped tables replaced the funky host's stand, the multicolored lounge furniture, and the crew boat-shaped tables. The concrete floor was covered with wood to give the space a warmer feel, though no improvements seem to have been made to the ventilation-challenged basement restrooms. The building's rooftop still has the same industrial-feeling, illicit thrill usually reserved for spaces accessed through the fire escape, though its appeal may be waning as newer, more posh sky decks get built. One warm, sunny evening, Solera's rooftop was nearly empty, while the brand-new one at Crave, diagonally across Ninth and Hennepin, was packed.

Solera's menu still focuses on Spanish tapas, and a few of the old favorites remain, including the goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers and the scallops seared "a la plancha" and plated with a glowing yellow-orange saffron sauce and a featherweight slice of Serrano ham. The new chef, Jorge Guzman, who was previously the executive chef at the now-shuttered Tejas in Edina, has lightened up the former menu, which leaned toward heavy, salty, savory items. Guzman has also added more sustainably raised meats, seasonal produce, and textural variety, and he plans to change the lineup more frequently.

From Guzman's seafood offerings, for example, there's a plate of fish, typically swordfish, poached in olive oil, served with creamy gigandes, or giant white butter beans, and a lively garlic-basil-olive oil pistou (France's answer to pesto, except without the pine nuts and, often, the cheese). There's also an equally vibrant grilled cuttlefish, with its chewy, squid-like bands served in an acidic vinaigrette that suggests a ceviche spiked with tomato, olive, and onion.

The beet salad isn't breaking any new ground with its slightly smoky paprika dressing and clumps of soft Portuguese goat cheese, though garlic chips add a welcome spike to the roots' flat earthiness. A plate of Beluga lentils—firm but tender pods that are a different animal entirely than their dal-making cousins—waft the scent of truffles across the whole table and are smartly paired with the creamy-crisp combination of a poached egg, toasted brioche croutons, and snarls of frisee.

For those desiring dense, meaty tapas, such dishes are still abundant. The rabbit stew with red beans and sausage is a straightforward preparation, not as exciting as the Catalan sausage with gigande beans. Both are served in small skillets, but the latter offers rustic chunks of coarse-ground meat cooked in a tomato-and-pickled-carrot slurry that has the appealing sweet-tart tang of a good barbecue or brown sugar baked-bean sauce.

The old Solera's Patatas Bravas—fried potato wedges seasoned with chili, tomato, and aioli—was a simple but well-loved dish. Guzman's new Papas Crujientes elevates the concept, serving creamy potato hunks, crunchy with lacy browned bits, tossed with arugula, lemon, and mascarpone cheese. It's comfort food with an edge, what hash browns should aspire to be.

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