Dry Limes and Misdemeanors
Nestled within the cozy nautical confines of Haulover Marina, Solo on the Bay couldn't have a lovelier setting. Almost all the 400 seats are located on a spacious outdoor deck boasting billowy white curtains and an aesthetically pleasing vista of the Intracoastal Waterway. It's a serene spot for breakfast or lunch, but peak hour comes like clockwork each and every evening when the sun performs its set with splashy splendor.
Years before Solo's arrival five months ago, this convivial locale, inside the county's Haulover Park, hosted Salty's and before that Sundays on the Bay. Both were owned by Stefano Brandino, who in 1997 was found guilty of conspiracy to launder drug money, sentenced to prison, and forced to relinquish control of his properties, which also included Stefano's, Linda B's Steak House, and Sundays on the Bay on Key Biscayne, and Bellini's on Captiva Island. If there were laws against running a restaurant really poorly, the proprietors of Solo would likely be facing a similar fate.
Things were askew from the start, when warm, crusty slices of wheat bread were accompanied with a bowl of bland and vaguely unpleasant paprika oil. The waiter claimed it contained garlic and other enhancers, but it seemingly lacked even salt. I'd also have to surmise that the oil wasn't made from olives, because when we asked for a side of olive oil for a tuna Niçoise salad, we were told there was none in the house. Just as well, for the dark, avidly acidic balsamic vinaigrette that came on the side really couldn't harm the already wilted greens, and no olive oil on earth could salvage the desiccated splinters of tuna that were grilled to the consistency of overcooked liver.
A strong current of tropical ingredients flows through Solo's menu, which is a worn, wrinkled, laminated short list of mostly seafoods. Among the half-dozen appetizers, conch fritters come with "mango-citrus remoulade," chicken wings with a "flood of scotch bonnet, papaya, and mango," seafood crabcake with "pineapple salsa, mango, and passion fruit 'coulis-grette,'" and "jumbo" mussels with "applewood smoked bacon, mango, and a splash of lime and Pernod." The mussels were not at all as described -- no sign of bacon or Pernod in the pasty, mildly sweet white sauce that accompanied ten miniature mollusks.
"Calypso calamari" was likewise out of step with its description as "Red Stripe beer-marinated and rice-flour-dipped, flavored with a spiced Caribbean sauce and lemon aioli." What turned up was a mound of rubbery rings shivering under a blanket of mushy cornmeal crumbs. Easily the worst dish of calamari I've suffered through in years, although suffer is probably too strong a term -- this is a word that should be reserved for actual discomfort, like that brought about by the music, a rumbustious techno mix piercing the quietude of an otherwise peaceful Sunday evening by the bay.
A main course of fried grouper, "rice-flour dusted and cooked crisp," was bulked with a batter only slightly less squelchy than that atop the soggy squid. Along with the other entrées, it arrived at the table while we were barely halfway through appetizers; the waiter sent the food back to the kitchen, where no doubt it luxuriated awhile under heat lamps. "Bimmini" snapper was as mishandled as it was misspelled, the fillets not "pan-seared crisp" but soft, as if lightly sautéed, and broken up into pieces. The accompaniment of "wilted spinach and arugula mélange" translated into garlic-sautéed spinach and "whipped Caribbean mash." Seafood fettuccine was supposed to contain salmon, mahi-mahi, calamari, grouper, and baby shrimp. But only the last two items appeared, along with unannounced cameos by crawfish, mussels, and clams, all tossed with the pasta in a flat and floury Alfredo sauce. In retrospect I should have taken a gamble with the "junkaroo pasta toss" of penne, chicken, sausage, and seafood in a "Red Stripe" tomato sauce.
A nightly special of flatiron steak was ordered medium-rare, and though the slices exhibited about as much pink as prison garb, the meat was tender and tasty. The steak goes for $23.95, prices being the least objectionable aspect of Solo (many menu entrées are under $20, most starters under $10). The main dishes come with vegetable and starch, too, many with the aforementioned Caribbean mash, which tasted like ordinary mashed potatoes (or as the menu refers to them, "potaotes") -- actually less-than-ordinary, for they were lukewarm, lumpy, and dry. I asked our waiter what made the potatoes "Caribbean" and he replied, "The potatoes come from the Caribbean." He must have noted my puzzled expression, so he explained: "When they're grown in Idaho, they're called Idaho potatoes, and when they're grown in the Caribbean, they're Caribbean potatoes." Later, when fact-checking by phone, I was told it should have been a combination of yuca and malanga.
Our waiter neglected to tell us about daily specials, but when asked, he reeled off a few seafood dishes and pasta of the day, which was linguine with shrimp. Under the menu's list of sides, along with the Caribbean mash, is "petite portion of the pasta du jour." So I said, "I'd like a small portion of the pasta du jour."
"What kind of pasta would you like?" the waiter replied.
"Pasta du jour."
"What pasta du jour?"
"The one you just told us about, linguine with shrimp."
"No, that's not the pasta du jour, that's the special pasta of the day."
"The pasta of the day isn't the pasta du jour?"
"No, pasta du jour is marinara, Alfredo, whatever you want. It's really just a child's portion."
I thanked him for the clarification and got "mashed potatoes à la crme" instead. For those of you unfamiliar with Solo dialect, à la apparently is slang for "without."
Solo on the Bay has a full bar (indoors and stylishly white), and I suppose they stock wine as well, though they never presented us with a list. We were, however, offered a tray of petits fours by a man weaving his way through the dining patio, hawking them table to table in a manner not unlike those intrepid entrepreneurs who trek through romantic restaurants selling roses. Uninformed of the petit four option, we had already finished a satisfactory crème brûlée and wedge of chocolate ganache cake that was rich, dry, and stiff from refrigeration. Coffee was fine: hot and strong. They overcharged for it, but rather than point out the error I just chalked it up to an understandable overexuberance for having finally gotten something right.
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