Solea at the W South Beach serves tasty but uneven fare
Less is more is a sound gastronomic principle, and certainly one the dining public has been eager to embrace. Sane portions, light sauces, bright flavors? Of course. Food from the Mediterranean, where the less-is-more crowd prefers to weigh anchor, likewise enjoys near-universal appeal — especially in Cuisine of the Sun-conscious South Florida. Grilled fish, fresh produce, extra virgin olive oil? Sí times three. So it would seem Soleá at the W South Beach, which emphasizes uncomplicated Mediterranean fare, would be precisely the kind of place to capture our fancy. Not necessarily.
Soleá starts with all sorts of factors in its favor. The executive chef is Michael Gilligan, who ably helmed Conrad Hotel's Atrio; chef de cuisine Arthur Artiles gained notice as Brosia's top toque. The veteran ownership team comprises Karim Masri, Nicola Siervo, and Rony Seikaly of KNR Restaurant Group, operators of Quattro Gastronomia Italiana and Sosta Pizzeria. As with those other ventures, the décor here is modern and multi-textured; polished walnut floors and chocolate-colored banquette seating contrasts soaring walls of white Venetian plaster and of glass-encased bottles of wine. Enormous pendant lanterns emit a glow nearly as soft as that from candles atop each white-linen-draped table. There are 90 indoor seats divided into a few different sections, and the same number on a lovely moonlit terrace nestled in shadows cast from full foliage.
Soleá, too, sits in a shadow — of the showier W venue, Mr. Chow. There wasn't much of a crowd during our visits here, and the apparent policy of dispersing diners into different areas made it seem even emptier. Bone-chilling air conditioning didn't help. Still, we began in fine enough fashion with crisp sheets of sesame-studded flatbread and slices of bread bearing bits of feta cheese and black olives — both made in-house and terrific. Three petite ramekins served alongside contained, respectively, Kalamata olives, fennel-infused olive oil, and marinated slivers of red and yellow peppers.
The best dishes on this Mediterranean menu are from Spain — perhaps a reflection of the restaurant name, Soleá, which refers to a specific style of flamenco song. We sang praises to a thin rectangular flatbread, whose crust was blistered with char marks from a wood-burning oven, smeared lightly with tomato, dusted with smoked paprika, and adorned with crunchy squares of chorizo and a fried egg cooked just right (but missing advertised mushrooms). This was one of too few plates capable of arousing gastronomic passion.
One more was an appetizer of three coarsely breaded, crisply fried salt cod croquettes that were extremely moist and light. Dabs of garlic-seeped aioli, rust-colored from an equally dense infusion of saffron, further roused the already rambunctious flavor.
The same cannot be said of four golf ball-size meatballs that came dense and weighty in a salty Rioja wine-based red sauce. Providing a lighter prequel to the meal were crudos, none daintier than salmon carpaccio barely yet zestfully dressed with sea salt, mint, and lemon vinaigrette.
On one occasion, my guest and I split a pasta dish as a second course — which came to two and a half ravioli apiece. Each round was filled with a duxelle of wild mushrooms; bathed in rich, sage-accented demi-glace; and capped with sautéed chanterelles, oysters, and creminis. The smooth flavors melded together beautifully despite the absence of truffles touted on the menu.
Columbia River salmon with asparagus spears, fingerling potatoes, and citrus dressing is one of two set seafood preparations. The other fish offerings — grouper, snapper, and branzino — come grilled and finished in the oven with olive oil and sea salt (either whole at $37 per pound or filleted for $42 per pound). We sampled a full branzino, its fleshy white flakes pristine and delicious with just a juicy squeeze from a grilled lemon half.
Meats, too, are few in number and unfussily prepared. "Black Diamond" filet mignon and a 22-ounce rib eye are described as "grilled," Colorado rack of lamb as "roasted," and veal chop as "brick oven-roasted." Our waiter said all were "grilled, then finished in the oven" — which, based on the thickness of cuts and light grill marks, is the most credible explanation of cooking method. (Service, incidentally, was spot-on during one visit, spotty during another.) We also inquired about the Black Diamond denomination. Though the waiter hesitatingly said it was the brand of meat, Chef Gilligan later clarified by phone it was a new high-quality specialty cut of prime.
The beef boasted a buoyant taste but was bungled with way too much salt, and the exterior lacked any crisp sear — not impressive for $48, and less so for $52, which is what it costs if you desire one of four steak sauces at $4 each (including predictable picks such as grain mustard or peppercorn). Better was the eminently tender veal chop, whose mild flavor was enhanced by herbs and seasonings. Most meat and fish entrées arrive with a thatch of gorgeous green organic mache leaves lightly misted with vinaigrette. In other words, add another $6 to $12 per à la carte side, be it truffle fries, asparagus with ham, or steamed spinach pooled in vegetable broth.
General manager Dale LoSasso (of the late North One 10) kept the wine list relatively compact in anticipation of a quiet summer opening — and with just a few Cabs and Bordeaux in respect to the hot, humid weather. Still, this eclectic, user-friendly compilation covers new ground via less familiar labels largely culled from Oregon, California, Spain, and France — appropriately light for the barely garnished foods. Bigger wines will be brought in to match the upcoming fall menu (which management claims will feature more composed dishes).
It took some 20 minutes for a goat cheese cheesecake to arrive after entrée plates were removed from the table. The desserts weren't baked to order, so somebody slipped up. Recognizing this, our waiter offered coffee on the house, an appropriate gesture undercut by an old-tasting brew. But the cake was worth the wait — the goat cheese lending a slight tartness well suited to garnishes of black cherry compote and scintillating white peach sorbet. Also good was "Chocolate sabotage," a carefully crafted quintet of treats featuring white, milk, and dark chocolates in the guises of ganache, panna cotta, mousse, candy bar, and sorbet.
Our favorite was pistachio semifreddo matched with moist and delicate amaretto cake, orange sections, and a quenelle of olive oil ice cream. Apricot notes from a late-harvest Mission Hill Riesling ice wine (Okanagan Valley, 2006) paired perfectly with the pistachio and almond flavors. Pastry chef Antonio Bachour isn't as well known as the two top guns in the kitchen, but his desserts were far more creative and satisfying than the dishes that preceded them.
Starters, excepting soups and salads, range from $14 to $20; the two pastas cost $18 and $24; and entrées, excluding chicken and salmon, run from $38 upward. Diners don't expect to get up from the table at a W restaurant for any less, but they might expect something more for their money — or in the realm of less-is-more, let's say they'd want a little more "more" to their less. This might mean an amuse-bouche or post-dinner petit four. Or it could mean outstanding service, or at least someone to remove a breadbasket from the table before dessert gets served. (And is it asking too much that tables for two are large enough to fit two entrée plates and two side plates?)
But most pertinent, these prices imply a cuisine with flavors that, however simply, convey something akin to the color and flamboyance of flamenco. Soleá's fare is tasty and fresh, but dance it does not.
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