Solera, Hotter Than The Sun

Are you sitting down? Are you well hydrated? Are you holding the newspaper with asbestos gloves and wearing a heat shield while sequestered in a special underground chamber? I certainly hope so, because super-hot news is coming at you, and be careful, it's hot! Okay. Take a deep breath. I don't want you to pass out or anything. Breathe, I said! All right. Here we go.

Chefs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma bought the old Backstage @ Bravo building, next to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, and will be opening a big Spanish complex called Solera there! Finally. Finally because the two have been trying to do something along these lines for two and a half years but kept having space after space fall through. McKee and Thoma, the partners at Stillwater's La Belle Vie, the critics' and connoisseurs' darling, were in the kitchen at D'Amico Cucina when that restaurant was the most important one in town. From La Belle Vie, they have changed the culture of local restaurants by inspiring chefs and diners with their bedazzling Spanish-inflected cooking, and by setting the bar high for standards of service in wine programs. They also have about as much goodwill as restaurant people can have--or at least they did until recently. Looks like Bill Summerville, sweet and suave general manager of D'Amico Cucina, has jumped ship to helm the new project, and even more players in town are signed up to abandon their current homes. "We're really, really excited," said McKee, when I spoke to him on the phone about Solera. "I can't talk about who I have in place, but they're employed, and I think it's safe to say I'm going to lose some friends." Ooh!

Oh well, you gotta spill a little blood... If I were a restaurant with some chefs I wanted to keep right now, I'd definitely start making sure everybody is happy.

I'm happy, because Solera looks to be bringing a few entirely new things to town: For one, there will be an extensive sherry menu to pair with appetizers. "I think sherries are great with all kinds of salty, piquant, or seafood plates," says McKee. "If you try one of my favorites, La Gitana, with some Marcona almonds, you'll get the idea: It's a rich and complicated pairing. Most people think of sherry as being sweet, what your grandma drank before she went to bed, but it's actually very nice as an apéritif." Another new idea: The tapas bar will be more like a sushi bar--a 20-seat counter wrapped around a chef's working kitchen area, where you'll be able to sit and talk with the chef, order little plates, and watch him cook them. McKee says prices will be reasonable; expect to pay what you would at Campiello or Palomino. In the sit-down, regular restaurant part, expect a mostly or all-Spanish wine list, and a menu featuring a few pages of tapas, as well as more conventional dishes. "One of the reasons I wanted to do a restaurant like this is because my favorite way to dine is to taste a lot of things," says McKee. "Solera will have a more convivial atmosphere than most restaurants--basically, we want people to have just a ridiculous amount of fun."

Fun? I love fun! Don't you love fun? See, I knew you did. I just knew it. So I guess you're ready to make your 2004 New Year's reservations then, right? Don't laugh. Scout's honor, two days after Thoma and McKee closed on the sale of the building, I happened to talk to Robin Martin, the owner of the metro's fanciest wedding-cake shop, Gateaux, and a bride had already booked her wedding into Solera. Hot enough for you? Look for the place to open in March.