"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.
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.
A large section of the menu is now devoted to Spanish cheeses and charcuterie. The kitchen's presentation of, say, a Caña de Cabra soft goat's-milk cheese offers a pleasing way to become familiar with Spain's answer to the French Bucheron. Each sample is sliced from a cheese log to display its two layers—a creamy ring around the edge and drier, chevre-like center—and it's elegantly matched with a few crackers, candied nuts, and a bittersweet orange marmalade.
Charcuterie lovers should sample the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, which the servers like to explain as a dry-cured ham that comes from free-roaming, dark-coated pigs who run around Spanish forests gorging themselves on acorns. What the server may not mention is that this delicacy costs $14 for one paper-thin, oval-shaped slice, which is about eight inches at its longest point. But Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is Europe's premier cured meat, pricier than Italy's Prosciutto de Parma. It can cost upward of $100 a pound and was unavailable in the United States until a few years ago.
The meat's texture is extremely buttery and soft, and its flavor is nutty, funky, salty, infused with sharpness reminiscent of Parmesan cheese. Eating Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is to experience umami incarnate. Compared to a typical prosciutto, its flavors seem to change as you chew through each bite. It's up to you to decide if these distinctions justify the cost of a repeat order.
Value can be a concern for hearty eaters who approach small-plates places with trepidation. For the most part, portion sizes at Solera compare to those at restaurants with similar small-plate concepts, though a couple of dishes are priced slightly higher than expected. The house-made pork rillette, shreds of slow-cooked meat, was a tasty spread, but the daily potted meats at Tilia offer nearly twice the product for less money. Solera's grilled artichoke was a lovely specimen, albeit at $7. The choke was split in half, its leaves infused with a smoky char and spread with the North African herb-and-spice paste chermoula. A steamed preparation pales in comparison.
There are several large-plate options—beef, pork, and chicken among them—but you'd be better off with a couple of orders of the chimichurri-splashed seared sirloin Bistec al Gaucho tapas than with the more substantial Southwestern-style flank steak. Though the steak's accompanying frijoles charros were delicious, the meat was, as is typical, a tough, chewy cut. Guzman likes to cook beans in beer, which lends them a complex richness, but adding whiskey to the plate's braised Swiss chard lent the greens an unpleasant harshness. A big pan of sharable paella is, of course, a natural choice for group dining, and Solera's is a bountiful spread of mussels, prawns, chicken, and chorizo baked into a sea of saffron rice. Chili aioli ladled on top lends the dish a creamy kick.
Solera still offers fine regional drinking, including a long list of sherries, available by the glass. There are fun cocktails, too, like Pisco Sours (native to South America, but no matter) and the intriguing Barcelona, a sort of herbal-lemony margarita made with green Chartreuse and a delightful cane sugar-black pepper-smoked sea salt rim.
The beverage list begs the question of whether a glass of sangria, the Solera Signature, might be worth $12? It depends. It's a lush, easy-drinking blend of Spanish Monastrell, cognac, and amaretto. But the average sangria-drinker's bar is set low: What does one expect from the beverage, really, other than for it not to taste like its birthplace was a jug of Carlo Rossi? Less discerning drinkers will probably do just fine with the slightly sweeter, punchier, brandy-Tempranillo Tinto Tradicional for $6 a glass. One might also branch out to the white wine and cava-based sangrias, or the Garnacha Libre, a blend of Spanish Grenache, the vanilla-flavored Licor 43, and a splash of Coca-Cola, which tastes far better than it sounds. (The drink is a riff on calimocho, the red wine and cola mix that all the cool kids in Spain are supposedly drinking.)
Graves bills itself as a hospitality company, and often, at Solera, it delivers. One especially crack server went beyond the basic expectations of being friendly, prompt, and knowledgeable to point us toward menu sleepers and describe them with poetic similes. Not only is the Smoked Palomino an excellent cocktail, but it does, indeed, taste like "licking a grill with a hint of grapefruit." It's an odd but lovely combination that we likely would have overlooked without the personal endorsement. The boquerones on crostini, or anchovies on toast, proved, as promised, that the familiar, supersalty, mushy brown plops are truly a shadow of their white, vinegar-cured cousins.
This same server also helpfully clarified a couple of menu descriptions that were misleading or inaccurate. The chorizo-stuffed dates with organic greens are actually also stuffed with goat cheese, battered, and fried—facts not mentioned on the menu. He also let us know that even though the paella says it serves two, it could easily feed four if you start with a few tapas. On delivering the dish, he helpfully advised us not to bypass the dish's toasted rice crackles, called socarrat, which have the same appeal as the starch that sticks to the bottom of a Korean stone bibimbap pot.
Solera's biggest service flaw involves staff removing plates that still contain food without asking if the table has finished. Stopping the act, in the hopes of savoring those last few bites, can make the diner feel like a greedy Iberican pig or a cheap bastard. (Social code prevents a Minnesotan from eating the last bit of a shared dish without first offering it to everyone and then, after everyone offers a polite refusal, divvying it up into minuscule bites.) On one visit, my group waited so long for the check that I wondered if we might actually be in a Spanish restaurant.
By the way, that server who cut off my original order never did give me a shot at those fried veggies. After we polished off the entrée we'd ordered, the climax of our meal, he cleared the plates and dropped the dessert menus without inquiring if we wanted to order any more savories. True, we were well sated, desiring nothing more than a few bites of something sweet. (You really can't go wrong on the dessert list, between the fig-topped goat cheese cheesecake, the blueberry crepes with brown butter ice cream, or the flan.) He knew our needs better than we knew them ourselves. But I still think he should have asked.