Restaurant Opening of the Century

900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Finally, a little cutthroat competition around this joint! Oh wait, that's not a very Minnesota-nice way to put it. Let me try again.

You know what's nice to see? It's nice to see almost every single one of our cities' most important restaurants contribute a key player to the success of Solera, the new Spanish-influenced restaurant that Tim McKee and Josh Thoma are opening in early April. Like who? Like long-term sous chefs from Zander, Café Barbette, Vincent, the Modern, and Goodfellow's, not to mention the star pastry chef from Aquavit, the suave and accomplished general manager from D'Amico Cucina, and, frankly too many others to name.

Jack Riebel, former Goodfellow's sous, has gone out to Stillwater to run La Belle Vie, accompanied by Don Saunders, former sous from Vincent. LBV, of course, is the fancy Mediterranean-based restaurant in Stillwater where McKee and Thoma have been winning awards and dazzling diners ever since the duo left D'Amico Cucina five years ago. In fact, you can see his high-pressure debut, cooking LBV's fifth-anniversary dinner, this Friday, March 28th. It's a five-course tasting menu for $85 a person; call 651.430.3545 for reservations.

What kind of changes can we expect at LBV? I talked to Riebel on the phone for this article, and he told me that as of his first month he has been tweaking little things to unify the fine-dining aspects of the restaurant: The coffee service now features java that is fresh-ground for every brewing, for example. "My first menu won't be coming out until a few weeks after Solera opens," Riebel told me. "The challenge is to maintain the idea and integrity of what Tim does, and refine it and elevate it where I can." Once Riebel's first independent menu does debut, it will include more classical tips of the hat to the finest of fine dining, like off-the-bone frog's legs with a garlic custard. In the meantime, Goodfellow's regulars who have been curiously booking tables can make specific requests for Riebel's Asian-inflected specialties. Until then, "the motto is baby steps," says Riebel.

For instance, the most astute LBV plate-watchers will have noticed recently that the salad greens have shrunk from merely small to technically "micro," and if one of you readers will be so kind as to e-mail me when the first plate of miniature meringues and macaroons hits the table after dinner, I would be eternally grateful. Those things freaking kill me. I for one am really excited to see what Riebel can do once freed from his velvet prison of blue corn sticks. I can't wait.

But not nearly as much as I can't wait for Solera to open. I can't possibly wait. It doesn't seem fair for time to pass so slowly! Move, time! Speed it up! So Minneapolis can begin the Solera Grand Opening Party--on April 5th, invite only. Can you possibly stay away? I say invite-only be damned, go press yourself up against the glass and scream and whine. I know I will.

Why? Because of the food, of course, but also since the opening to top all openings promises flamenco dancers flown in from Spain, full-blown flamenco and rai bands (rai is Algerian music that combines African, Spanish, and French elements) partying on several floors, a thousand invited guests (literally), scads of local wine importers pouring dozens of Spanish wines and sherries, and, and--and everything. A chance to see the old [email protected] space transformed with a Gaudi-esque festival of iron and stone.

Not to mention sous chefs, sous chefs, sous chefs! Like Matthew Bickford, who ran operations for the longest time at Zander; like Ian Pierce from the Modern; and like William Fairbanks, the young talent from Café Barbette. To say nothing of Adrian Odom, the breathtaking longtime pastry chef at Aquavit, who no longer has to work with cloudberries or lingonberries. All these folks will be working under restaurant-chef Jason Ross, who has worked at D'Amico Cucina, Origami, the Aquavits both here and in New York City, and also in Manhattan's Bouley.

Let us say that if there were any secrets--any secret recipes, or any secret techniques hidden behind the lines of Minnesota's greatest kitchens--they ain't secret no more. And the keepers of these former secrets will all be working under the overall direction of Tim McKee, formerly of D'Amico Cucina, founder of La Belle Vie, winner of too many awards to count. I feel faint. Somebody bring me some smoked sable.

Because that is just one of the many, many things these many, many new talented Solera chefs will be cooking once they debut their menu of lots and lots of little plates of tapas. There will be a few a la carte entrées too, for people who need them, but the heart and soul of the place will be tapas, very budget-friendly ($5-$8), very Spanish, very chef-deluxe. That smoked sable (also known as black cod) will be served on a crouton toasted with spicy paprika, alongside a small salad of arugula and tomato concassé dressed with a purée of oil-cured black olives, sherry vinegar, and extra-virgin olive oil. Another dish will be an octopus ceviche, made with little braised baby octopus, tossed in a cumin-lime vinaigrette with baby tomatoes, toasted garlic, cumin seeds, hot peppers, and mâche. Or a platter of six malpeque oysters, each with a different sauce. Young goat's-milk-cheese fritters, served with thyme honey and chopped parsley. Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo, served with a bacon-dressed frisée salad. Braised rabbit, made with white wine, orange, rosemary, and mirepoix, served with fingerling potatoes simmered in the braising liquid.

Those, my friends, are just some of the many, many things you will get to try if only time would speed forward! With them, you'll get a crack at what I'm guessing is going to be the nation's largest sherry selection: some 20 to 40 by-the-glass options for sherries that Bill Summerville, general manager and sommelier, promises will change all of our collective minds about the meaning and possibility of sherry. "There will be eight different categories of sherry," says Summerville. "Sherry is one of those historic beverages that the more you learn, the more there is to learn." Sherry isn't necessarily about sweet, he cautions, and a consult with my wine encyclopedias has revealed to me that true amontillado or oloroso sherry is completely dry, and it's only through addition of some other thing, like an intensely sweet wine made from Pedro Ximénez grapes, or an actual sweetening syrup, that they are made so sugary. Well, I can't wait to find out.

Experimentation with sherries will mostly cost $4 to $9, but some of the oldest and rarest glasses may run as high as $35 for a two-ounce pour. The regular wine list will be entirely Spanish, with 20 bottles priced under $20. Will Solera be the four-star restaurant you stop at on the way to First Avenue? "We want people to come in here, have a great time, mix and match, eat, drink--and not have to wait for a birthday or anniversary to afford do it," explains Summerville.

So how does Tim McKee like this vast thing he and Josh Thoma have been working on for almost three years? This thing that will have rooftop music in the summer, a tapas bar, like a sushi bar, for interactive eating, and that puts him right in the thick of the Minnesota prestige-restaurant world? After all, it's mere walking distance for most of those chefs' old bosses to drop in and taunt them. "There is nothing about this place I am not excited about," says McKee. He's excited about the Gaudi-esque chandeliers, the communal table, the salt-and-pepper shakers, and every single thing, "except how much work it is." Except, it isn't work for me! Or you. Mark your calendars, as the restaurant opens for regular business April 7th.

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