sola Restaurant Review
Having spent a good portion of my life and time commuting back and forth between California and the suburbs of Chicago – the Fox Valley area – it has at times been somewhat difficult for me to decide where to call home. And having just recently returned from another extended sortie west, I was still smiling about some of the great dining found in various places on the coast, south of San Jose. It is difficult to describe the differences between there and here – dining-wise – but there are definite and notable differences that I wish more places here could replicate.
Perhaps it was the lure of a kindred spirit – a chef – from the west coast that motivated me, and perhaps it was just the lure of a chance to again venture into the city of Chicago. No matter. This past Wednesday, Lauren and I headed east for dinner at a new restaurant called Sola. Located not far from Wrigley Field, in what is referred to as West Lakeview, the upscale venue features an incredibly innovative menu packed with mouth-watering creations from California native Carol Wallack, who says the name Sola not only evokes the sun, but also is a feminine version of “solo”. The drive in to the city was like a trip to the dentist, and I felt as if I needed Novocain to complete the leg from the Kennedy in to the restaurant – it was an agonizing crawl. Once inside the front door however, it was as if Scottie had beamed me back to the coast. General Manager John Arents met us at the door, and his demure calm and wide smile was the opening sedative that led to a relaxed and totally enjoyable evening.
The interior was almost austere, yet it exuded a soothing warmth. The colors were the gentle earth-tones of the southwest; a fireplace glowed and the ceiling was filled with slender, curved columns of amber that cast a gentle and comfortable glow on the dining room. Topping the white table cloths were sienna-brown paper sheets, cloth napkins and silverware, a single salt/pepper grinder and a single flower brightly smiling from its square glass container. We were immediately provided with ice water and our server – Anya – asked if we would care for a cocktail. After that drive? Absolutely! Lauren chose a Saki-tini (gin with a splash of Saki, garnished with cucumber bits) and I ordered a Stoli martini garnished with onions soaked in vermouth. Both drinks were served in chilled “up” glasses and were perfect.
As we gazed at the menu – described as Contemporary American – I could almost hear the roar of the ocean. The unmistakable influence of both sides of the Pacific Ocean were immediately obvious in appetizers such as artichoke fritters with soy lime & white truffle-honey sauces ($6), lobster shiitake pot cooked in coconut ginger broth ($9), crab cakes with oriental salad and citrus gastrique ($8) or a trio of tuna tartars served with Thai cucumber salsa and ginger confit ($12). Or how about the entrees like bacon wrapped pork tenderloin with butter squash, chanterelles, pomegranate demiglace and apples ($17); Nobu’s miso black cod with bamboo rice and curried sunchokes ($19); black pepper tuna with black beluga lentils, balsamic soy syrup, shiitake and snow peas ($23); or Opakapaka (Hawaiian Red Snapper) served en papillote with pineapple, shiitake, mint and cilantro ($22). Can you say Maui… ocean… west coast? I knew ya could!
For starters, Lauren and I decided to get the Artichoke Fritters and the Crab Cakes and sample some of each. The cakes were some of the very best I have had (and I have sampled them everywhere I see them on a menu) with palate-pleasing oriental nuances. The artichoke fritters had the most delicate and lightest of breading, and the two sauces were delicate, very different from one another, so complimentary and sooo good, I think I could have made a meal of them. For dinner, Lauren selected a pan-broiled Grouper, nestled on a grilled pineapple ring with purple rice, a slick and slightly spicy salsa and topped with avocado slices. I chose an evening special (soon to be on the menu): a “five-spice-rubbed” duck breast over parsnip–leek “hash-browns” with a brandied cherry demi-glace and ginger braised endive. The fish was tender and perfectly cooked; the duck breast was seared on the outside, fairly rare on the inside and very flavorful. Can you say “unbelievable”? I knew you could say that too! Both dishes were exquisite and the flavors were outstanding. For dessert we split a pecan-molasses cake with Maker’s Mark bourbon and a bourbon-caramel sauce with a scoop of home-made buttermilk ice cream. Angelic!
It was an excellent evening. And for a relatively new restaurant, things ran as if the place had been open for years. Plating of the entrees was done with an artist’s hand, the flavors were absolutely incredible, the prices were way reasonable and Anya was the exclamation point on the service – always with a smile at the table and throughout the dining room. Ms. Wallack has done her homework and Sola is the perfect place for a casual, yet fine dining experience. And believe it or not, there is even carry-out service! If Sola weren’t such a long drive for me, I know I would be a regular. Sola easily receives 4 1/2 Zins, and my recommendation is to make a reservation to go there ASAP. Thanks To Chef Carol Wollack and her entire crew for bringing the warmth of the coast to a cold hinterland!