Celestial Solera

Here's to Us (and Them): Reveling in restaurant nirvana at Solera
Bill Kelley
900 Hennepin Ave. Minneapolis

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.

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.  

Where to begin? Enter the showpiece, stage-set doors of Solera and you'll find a Barcelona-influenced space with a Blade Runner palette: Night blue, amber, and silver are the colors all around you, and what flattering colors they are. The bar and lounge is full of function and hubbub. Sit at the white mosaic tapas bar with the chefs buzzing busily behind it, and you'll run the risk of having enchantingly great food--truly, La Belle Vie-quality food, at budget prices. Sit at the bar-bar, and you can have a cocktail or, for $3.50, a beautiful, tall pilsner glass of Grain Belt amidst the hand-blown glass lamps.

Is this why the place is full till 2:00 a.m. on weekends with the sorts of tramping-up-and-down-the-stairs-in-packs, cleavage and Sun-In girls you never see in other restaurants with sommeliers? Or is it spillover from the movie-set-of-a-rooftop-bar, where, improbably, Solera has been hosting cutting-edge club music DJs every weekend? Tucked behind a Hennepin-facing billboard, the dozen tables are a lovely place to tuck away at sundown with a crisp and chill $15 bottle of Marques de Caceres 2001 rosé and the alternately rich and grassy grilled asparagus tapas ($8.50). Which is a beautiful thing, a good quarter pound of charred spears of asparagus wrapped together like a bouquet of tulips with a few strips of lomo, which is like a very lean ham, the whole of it set in a pool of rich, creamy, lick-the-plate-worthy Mahón cheese sauce. There is another handful of tapas available on the rooftop deck, like the rich and gelatinous pork ribs in a paprika-tomato sauce ($8), a fall-apart-in-the-mouth, European soul food sort of treat that should touch the heart of anyone in need of long-cooked nurturing.

Down in the formal dining rooms, the tables are topped with sculptured silvery table decorations with Picasso-esque heads on them: Pepper shakers, ice buckets, candleholders like little men. At first I was sure that these things would be going in everyone's purses, but management assures me that the servers are personally responsible for the things, and the one time someone pocketed them security confronted the scoundrel and she returned them. So you are warned!

With various banquet rooms for parties, the several dining rooms, the lounge, and the rooftop bar, Solera is just massive enough to have a security staff. Which is nice, because I think otherwise thieves would be running through and heisting plates of the octopus ceviche, which is nearly too marvelous for words. The way they make it is to layer perfectly cooked tentacles in a terrine with a bit of gelatin, then unmold the thing and slice it crosswise. The result looks like a little dollhouse flagstone street, round purple pavers linked each to each invisibly, the whole of it resting on elegant little translucent lime sections, the fruit cut delicately away from its pith. And around the plate is a ring of the tiniest possible square cuts of green and red peppers in a blowzy citrus vinaigrette. Lovely.

Tiny balls of deep-fried goat cheese cloaked in honey and positioned like sculpture around a center haystack of caramelized sweet onions were as delicate as summer berries. The tortilla española ($6.50) is a must-order, a personal-sized eggy tortilla, not unlike a frittata, filled with spicy chorizo and plain good potatoes, the whole of it coated with a ladleful of spicy aioli, like a sugar-iced Bundt cake: The various levels of wholesome farm rustic--sausage, potato, egg--weave together with spice to create something powerful. A reader tipped me off to the tortilla, one of the few budget-lowering dishes, and also insisted I try the spicy, lemony calamari ($9), a fantastic version made with a sour, lemony batter jazzed up with smoked paprika, which turns each piece into something more akin to a squid-lemon fritter than mere calamari. I'm glad I did, because the calamari are truly excellent--and, I predict, destined to sweep every upcoming Mpls. St. Paul magazine food award--but also because it's illuminating to consider these two poles of cephalopod; who could have dreamed that one restaurant could produce both the high-minded to the point of being celestial octopus ceviche, as well as the crowd-friendly and down to earth calamari?  

Yet at the tapas bar, everything falls apart. Or the customers do, anyway, confronted with delight after delight. The two times I have been at the tapas bar it was all I could do not to swoon to the ceiling on a cloud of happiness. Especially the Thursday night I went and encouraged the shy, quiet chef to give us anything he thought might be good. We tried tiny little imported chorizos, grilled, served in a thick wine reduction with strips of grilled and seared piquillo peppers (imagine the Little Smokies of The Gods, and you'll get the idea). We tried fresh oysters on the half shell in a variety of just-made sauces. We tried a single scallop grilled and served with a tomato reduction, and another one grilled and served with the simplest bit of lemon and herb oil on the plate, the mollusks each grilled to the perfect char of crisp without, sushi-like within--marvelous.

I tried some other things, too: roast rabbit with two sauces running round the plate, one tomato, one garlic-rosemary. More. Yet, even with that free rein the price per person was only $30 before wine and tip! Sigh.

Which is to say nothing of the desserts: When Adrienne Odom was making desserts at Aquavit they were architectural, thoughtful, accomplished, and a bit chilly. Now at Solera I feel like she has been given opportunity to relax a little and skip the lingonberries, and the results are stunning. A recent torrone ice cream sandwich ($7) is the most charming dessert in memory--two rectangles of soft, rich chocolate cake made into a sandwich around a cream filling studded with baubles of whipped, crisp hazelnut praline. Beside the ice cream sandwich is a little glowing heap of black plum compote, and then off to one side is a tall shot glass filled with a wee little plum-vanilla ice cream soda. Delightful. Never have plums seemed to have such an essential chocolate and cream note in their tart hearts.

The variety of presentations keep dessert surprising, lively, and engaging--no small feat after a long and dazzling dinner. A peach trifle is a parfait glass layered with discs of sherry-soaked yellow cake, poached syrup-glazed peaches, and sherry-touched cream, the whole thing topped with a homemade scoop of peach sorbet and one of those sugar wands that makes dessert look like it meant to get to the modern art museum but ended up with you instead. Plunge a fork into it and you're treated to a dessert where the oaky and fleeting qualities of sherry wander like smoke through a sunny grove of peaches. It seemed like an odd pairing initially, such a formal pastry chef in such a casual thing as a tapas bar, but now it seems like a stroke of genius. Without the formality and heaviness of giant entrées before them, these little plates of invention seem as free and wonderful as Calder mobiles.

So in addition to everything, it's a perfect place after a downtown concert for a glass of sherry and dessert. Of course, the whole sherry thing should be addressed. Frankly, I gave it the old college try a few times, with the fino and manzanilla sherries one is supposed to have as an aperitif, but I must confess I find sherry a little high-octane for drinking with dinner, and while I can see that with enough discipline and attention I could learn to appreciate the stuff, the prospect seems more like a chore than a pleasure. And if a food and wine critic can't muster enthusiasm for the project, it's hard to see how you all would.

Well, if you would, please know it's all right there, 40 glass pours, most priced at around $6, in all the pre-dinner varieties, the finos, manzanillas, and amontillados, as well as the after-dinner sorts, the oloroso and rare-creams and all.

In any event, the sherries are conveniently printed on the back of the marvelous wine list, the praises of which I could sing for a week. For one thing, the all-Spanish list has so many high quality cheapies it makes the head spin, including a dozen bottles under $20, with, finally, cristalino cava at $18 instead of the ever-popular metro-wide insult price of 40 bucks at other restaurants that I've been harping about all year. After you contemplate all the marvelous cheapies, you'll quickly notice that there isn't a bad bottle on the list, and if you know anything about Spanish wine, the list induces the chest-tightening glee that you'll remember from being a child and seeing wrapped birthday presents: I will get some of the magical things of desire, but will I get them all?  

Anyhoo, one time I was there in a seafood mood and tried something from the higher ranges, namely the flinty and mushroom-edged Juve Y Camps 1999 Reserva de La Familia cava ($28), which provided a perfect foil for the rich and salty coil of smoked salmon garnished with sea-tasting coins of trout roe ($8.50). Another night I tried the fantastic Torres 1997 Atrium from the Penedès region ($32) which was so dusky, smoky, rich, big, and flat it was like sipping from a Daumier landscape.

The one problem I have with Solera's wine list is this: How is anyone unfamiliar with or intimidated by wine ever, ever, ever going to hope to navigate it? By my last visits I had taken to showing the wine list, divided by Spanish region, to my friends and asking them what they would do with it without me. They looked at me like I had presented them with a pile of lawn mower parts and asked them to make a car. To a one they studied it, decided they had heard of Rioja, and would have gone with one of those. Except, they were almost always looking at the white Riojas, so I can only imagine how this goes. I wonder if they will have to go with a list with a lot more explaining on it.

The thing that makes me fearless ordering here is the simple knowledge that Bill Summerville, the guy who designed it, is about as high-strung a perfectionist as you're going to find on this earth, and he would sooner stick needles under his fingernails than allow someone to accuse him of having a bad wine on his list. And yet, I know that even my telling you this will have little effect, because it's like recommending a car mechanic, you'll only believe he's that good once you've had a few good experiences with him yourself. But I'm telling you, he's that good.

I think the moment that I actually stopped worrying about Solera's ability to succeed and started really enjoying it was one night when I noticed who was at the nearest two tables to me in the back dining room. One table held the youngest looking couple, sharing the cheapest bottle of white Rioja ($16) over those spicy, peppery, lemony calamari and looking for all the world like a Norman Rockwell painting--except set in Barcelona. The other table held a party of eight that looked for all the world like your average after-softball, work-type gathering, everybody drinking light beers and eating salty snacks, concluding the meal with a few of those five-star desserts, one of which had a candle melted onto the plate. I then eavesdropped enough to hear them decide the bill came to $28 each.

I looked around and realized: By golly, this is Them and Us, in happy harmony. If all of Us take a few years and get used to This, to fine-dining quality at chain-dining prices, why--why, you know what? Then I can get to prognosticating and predicting again! Because if this becomes normal, imagine how great things will be in 10 years! Every day will be like heaven and the circus all in one. It could change everything.

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Solera Restaurant & Event Center - Closed

900 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403



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