Some of the best-written menus can spark in me a fierce wanderlust. Often it is the mere mention of an ingredient - a jerk spice rub, a musky sauce of pumpkin seed, a piquant olive salad meant for muffuletta - that will set me to daydreaming of my next vacation.
Name a few destinations, as they do at Chestnut Hill's Solaris Grille, where images of French Champagne country, the Jamaican coast and Hong Kong are invoked alongside buerre blancs, plantains and dumplings, and forgive me for hoping that somewhere in this worldly kitchen a hearth of culinary knowledge will bring to my table--if not a plane ticket, at least a hint of those distant flavors. But eating at Solaris Grille can sometimes feel like a disappointing vacation.
The gap between what's advertised on the menu and what comes to the table is occasionally so broad it's akin to getting off the plane only to realize the pilot flew to the wrong destination. What was Thai hot sauce, for example, doing all over the "West Indian" jerked chicken other than obscuring overcooked meat, a general lack of flavor, and only the faintest trace of jerk seasoning? Why would "Cuban-spiced" trout be stuffed with sliced sausage and cornbread, then paired with black beans sweetened with barbecue sauce? Even our excellent waitress couldn't bring herself to sell the daily bruschetta without a disclaimer: "It's not really bruschetta - at least I don't think so." What was it, we wondered, if not that rustic Italian toast rubbed with garlic cloves and drizzled with olive oil? Our $6.95 specimen, purportedly bruschetta made from "herbed focaccia," came to the table as two cold dinner rolls buried beneath a mountain of unseasoned peas and corn that tasted as if they had come from a can.
Even when the kitchen's take on exotic flavors worked, as in the spicy sour broth of curried broccoli soup, something else was missing - broccoli. Not a single speck of green was found in our cup of thin yellowish soup. Of course, what can you expect with broccoli prices being what they are (El Nino, right?).
So many other things here are in place for a pleasant dining experience. But international confusion in the kitchen makes an inauspicious return for star-crossed Solaris, which reopened four months ago after an early-morning fire gutted the then-six-week-old restaurant in April 1997. The blaze was so hot, it melted stacks of plates together. The restaurant is blessed with a wide patio, where gentle breezes from Germantown Avenue pass over a decidedly preppy and pearled clientele, dressed down in polos and Bermuda shorts, with the occasional cardigan sweater tied around the shoulders.
It's a lovely spot for alfresco lunch with a simple garden salad. And while the inside dining rooms can become deafeningly loud, their brightly colored walls and cheery wide windows set the ideal scene for a relatively affordable menu based, at least in concept, on sunny vacation destinations.
The restaurant's wine list has plenty of interesting, well-priced bottles from balmy climates such as Australia, Spain, Italy, and Chile to accompany the menu's exotic inclinations, along with more familiar French and California selections. The staff, too, is generally friendly and attentive, although there seem to be lapses in pacing (our neighbors sent entrees back because they were still eating salad) and occasional confusion in delivering the right dish to the right diner.
If what servers delivered was consistently good, however, I suppose I wouldn't mind the menu's liberal labeling as much. I'd just call it creative "fusion cuisine." And there were a few such successes. Honshu tuna was a nicely cooked tuna steak, moist and well-infused with a wasabi glaze. Low Country pork tenderloin was slightly charred with a pleasant, unusual marinade of reduced Coca-Cola and bourbon whose sweet, dark flavor recalled Chinese hoisin. Mussels benefited from a decent saffron tomato broth ripe with chunks of garlic. And cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and asparagus, first steamed, then browned on the sides, had the fresh textures to rise above the dark tang of balsamic vinegar sauce.
I also enjoyed the clever combination of tender grilled shrimp "Ocho Rios" with sweet slices of plantains, but had to quarantine them from the "sweet" ginger sauce, which was overpoweringly sour. I also avoided the garnish of Texmati rice, which had unfortunately crunchy, undercooked grains.
Temati rice was not the only thing that missed the mark because of poor execution. The calamari were pale and flabby underfried rings, wasting an interesting citrus sauce of blood-orange essence. Large scallops were seared until rubbery, with a pumpkin-seed sauce that had an interesting musky spice, but no acidic body or richness to round its flavors.
Hong Kong steamed dumplings were filled with an unbound pork stuffing that crumbled oddly in the mouth as if it were dry, ground turkey. A skimpy sliver of seven-layer rainbow tortilla (actually, we counted three tortillas filled with beans and cheese) had the soggy chew and unremarkable taste of a reheated burrito.
The delicate subtlety of raw tuna carpaccio disappeared beneath the gingery blast of cold carrot slaw mounded in the middle--one flavor collision that wisely has been modified since our visits. Checkerboard ravioli, an attractive plate of black and white ravioli filled with lobster and veal amazingly had no flavor at all.
The Cuban-spiced "Ybor City" stuffed trout was overcooked (in fact, the slices of sausage inside were more tender than the fish). But it also displayed as much as anything else the kitchen's penchant for piling too many elements together. "The fish is in there" our waitress assured us as we peered dubiously at the stack of shredded tortilla hay towering above the plate. And even if they do eat Jamaican jerked chicken wings in Oman, that mysterious country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, I'd think they would have the good sense to stop before painting their "Oman wings" with sweet American barbecue sauce and adding a side of chutney dip, which tasted more like cinnamon and ginger-spiced apples than the touted red pepper. Desserts at Solaris Grille are less adventurous, and only occasionally more satisfying than the savory offerings.
A Key lime pie was nice, even though it lacked a sharp citrus snap at the end of each bite. And chocolate espresso torte was dense enough to sate a strong chocolate caffeine craving. A tricolored chocolate mousse terrine was supremely creamy and rich. Easily the best dessert, it was the only one not made in-house. At the height of cherry season, though was it a surprise that our cheesecake was coated with the same fluorescent red, gelatinous fruit topping you get in diners? Not after we dealt with the giant wedge of strawberry shortcake torte that had exactly three slivers of fresh strawberries inside. We launched a search party deep into its whipped cream wilderness and counted.