With our first bite, we knew something was wrong. The food was good, very good, but the dining room was empty -- a clear sign of impending trouble, like petrels appearing on the coast before a storm. How can this be in Elizabeth on a Friday night?
Solera Mediterranean Cuisine opened last June in an old house that has always had the feel of a well-loved afghan and the spirit of a neighborhood hangout -- or at least it was when Ethan's of Elizabeth operated there. New owners Oscar Benavides and Carlos Sanchez have completely spiffed up the interior. Now the rooms are light and the perimeter ones are "airy" -- especially on cool fall evenings with windows wide.
Both of Solera's owners are from Ecuador, a country that is generating a new crop of Charlotte restaurateurs. (The owners of Fiamma and Tria Terra are also Ecuadorian.) With 21 years experience in Spanish and Italian restaurants and American steak houses, Benavides' previous port of call was Stamford, Connecticut, another conduit for Charlotte restaurateurs. (Augusto Conte of Luce, Coco Osteria, Toscano, and Il Posto, and Fabio Salazar of the recently shuttered Volare both came to Charlotte from Stamford.)
Hmm. Any connection? We'll get to that.
True to Charlotte, the short, crisp, populist menu at Solera touches the Mediterranean on the north and west sides -- in other words Spain and Italy with a kabob thrown in. Mediterranean cuisine is hotter than Chef Sam Talbot (Talbot, raised in Charlotte, was a featured chef during Charlotte Shout 2007 and reportedly had a groupie following.) How many restaurants have opened with this concept recently? Five? Six? Mediterranean is popular because its premise -- straightforward combinations of seasonal ingredients -- fits into current lifestyle choices of moving away from big occasion dining to everyday dining, and lighter eating. Add to this the ability to experiment with small dishes -- either tapas or meze portions -- without the large outlay of cash, and the allure of Mediterranean cuisine is easily understood.
But, the prices and portions of Solera are not for the timid. Appetizers are served only in full portion sizes, not tapas, and range from $9 to $12.50, while entrees range from $13.50 for pasta to $27 for a 16-ounce rib eye. But entrées at Solera are generous and anything but dainty: Boatloads of food arrive in almost an Italian sensibility.
Plus not all the dishes, such as the lobster ravioli, are simple, traditional Mediterranean dishes. The striking contrast at Solera is the more complicated the dish, the more it coalesces into brilliance. The rustic opulence of the Portuguese seafood stew, a big dish of yum chock full of shell and fin fish, distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre with an herbaceous explosion of cilantro, parsley and wine. A less-complicated, but equally stellar dish is the Pinxto Maroquino -- skewered tender chicken alternating with sweet scallops dotting a fragrant citrusy couscous. This dish had the whole table singing the kitchen's praises.
Among the more demure dishes is the Solera salad, loaded with platoons of toasted nuts, avocados and flakes of Manchego cheese. The meltingly lush slices of duck breast on one finely crafted appetizer were completely predictable (and subsequently taken off the menu). The Antipasto de la Casa is the closest to munching on a variety of exceptional fresh-tasting small bites -- paper thin Serrano ham slices, Manchego cheese, Galician chorizo, fresh figs, and roasted peppers -- while enjoying wine from their international list (including American wines).
The dessert roster offers the required ubiquitous flan and a chocolate dessert (and an American one at that unless the Chocolate Lava cake is a nod to Vesuvius), but the berries and cream doused with Grand Marnier is the easiest to love.
Solera also offers lunch on the weekdays. Entrees range in price from $7.50 for a burger (with Manchego cheese) and $7.95 for Bucatini Pomodoro (pasta with tomatoes) to $13.95 for salmon with mussels with a saffron tomato broth.
The name of the restaurant, Solera, comes from the system used in the production of Spanish sherry. Wine from an older barrel is mixed with wines from newer barrels to achieve uniformity in taste and style. Ironically the name has taken on new life at Solera a few weeks ago when Volare, another Elizabeth restaurant, closed. Owner Fabio Salazar, a friend of Benavides since their time together in Connecticut, took over the helm of the kitchen at Solera. And that's the "Ah Ha" minute. Salazar has been a fixture in the Charlotte culinary community for over a decade since he first came on board at Augusto Conte's first restaurant (Conte's Ristorante Italiano in Myers Park.)
So for now with Salazar in the kitchen and Benavides' hospitable staff, the neighborly scale and many rooms within the old Elizabeth house, Solera stands at the ready to welcome the neighborhood crowd. Too bad not many have shown up yet, only the petrels on the silent fountain out front.
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Solera Mediterranean Cuisine, 366 North Caswell Street. 704-375-2520. Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday through Thursday 2:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Patio. AmEx, MC, Visa, Diners, Dis.