- Walter Novak
- What could be more fitting than a bottle of Solaire's well-aged wine with your rack of lamb?
Don't let the "wine bar" designation fool you: This second-floor boîte in the First & Main shopping district is really a small but elegantly appointed restaurant serving a generally well-executed menu of contemporary Mediterranean cuisine. The restaurant -- a project of attorneys Caroline Mueller and George Sintsirmas -- offers an experience revolving around high-end ingredients, creative preparations, and a notable wine list that invites exploration.
As part of Solaire, a full-service salon, spa, and inn, the upstairs space is expectedly serene and good-looking, with the full complement of marble, polished wood, white table linens, and dupioni silk draperies. A small granite bar nestles in one corner, a glass-enclosed wine cellar anchors another, and a balcony offers a striking view of the salon below. There's also a built-in fireplace set into a far wall; oddly enough, though, it's not visible from most tables.
Likewise, reaching the dining room involves a certain quota of strangeness, in the form of a steep stairway that rises through a fire escape. In a Montmartre bistro, we would call this "quirky charm." For new suburban construction, it's merely weird.
Nonetheless, diners who survive the climb will find that Sintsirmas makes a genteel host, circulating from table to table to discuss the food and drink. The fact that his gregarious college-age son serves as waiter only highlights the sense of family hospitality: By the end of the evening, you're likely to be on a first-name basis with all members of the small staff, including bartender Amy Arida (who whips up an excellent $10 'tini) and chef Kevin McCartney, who made frequent forays into the dining room on a weeknight when a companion and I had the place all to ourselves.
Sintsirmas, McCartney (an alum of Akron's fabled former Wine Merchant), and co-chef Gerald D'Angelo have developed a small but intriguing menu that, at its best, combines luxury, rusticity, and almost spa-like restraint. Predictably, this comes at a price, with starters and à la carte salads ranging from $14 to $24 and entrées at $19 to $32. In return, diners generally can expect smartly assembled, moderately sized portions of luxurious fare, rife with bold, earthy flavors.
Take the perfectly composed lamb entrée, for example: While calling three tiny chops a "rack" seems rather hyperbolic, the lush, lamby flavor certainly was beyond reproach. A dainty coating of cracker crumbs and Dijon mustard added zip and contrapuntal texture, a spare puddle of thyme demiglace contributed woodsy savor, and rich wild-mushroom risotto practically vibrated with basso profundo overtones.
Also top-notch, a richly appointed cheese and charcuterie plate, stocked with such high-end tidbits as truffle-flecked pâté, Italian salami, and silken taramasalata (that sea-scented Greek meze of whipped fish roe). Other components included triple-crème brie, Humboldt Fog chèvre, and softly pungent époisse -- a cow's milk cheese from France -- along with fresh fruits, thick balsamic syrup, plush cured olives, roasted garlic cloves, and warm pita wedges.
A toss of pristine baby greens, toasted almonds, sliced apple, and two ample pillows of panko-crusted, sautéed goat cheese starred in the à la carte Summer Salad; a piquant dressing of maple-syrup-enhanced balsamic, served on the side, added intrigue. And a pair of meaty yet delicately seasoned blue-fin crab cakes seemed almost lighter than air, buoyed by a dollop of dill and caper remoulade, also served on the side.
But then there was the oddly off-kilter duck breast and foie gras entrée, hijacked by a syrupy sweet garnish of preserved fruits. Nothing on the plate -- not the tender but underseasoned duck, not the slightly overcooked foie gras, not the bland, vaguely dry bread pudding -- was savory enough to counteract the overwhelming sweetness. The result was a flatfooted accumulation of elements that offered only boredom, where indulgence had been expected.
Service also had its shortcomings. Our young waiter was so delightful, we weren't sure if we should tip him or adopt him. But as a high-end server, he could use a little polish: He had to be reminded to bring the requested water, and he consistently forgot to clear one course before attempting to serve the next. At these prices, it wouldn't be out of line to expect clean flatware with each course either; instead, he told us to hang on to what we had already used.
Sintsirmas has assembled a long international wine list focusing mostly on Mediterranean regions. Some labels will be recognizable to even casual wine fans, though most are more obscure to tempt the adventurous. Unfortunately, the list does not offer tasting notes, which could make explorations considerably more tempting. And budget-conscious drinkers may feel a little miffed: Out of 70 or so bottles, a mere 10 cost less than $30, while 28 reach or surpass the $60 mark.
And yet, as we luxuriated in the cool emollience of dense Greek yogurt, drizzled with honey and sided by fragrant dollops of imported quince, cherry, and rose-petal preserves, our wallets were the last things on our minds. Pampering always has that effect on us -- at least until the Visa bill arrives.