Apparently there is no way to overestimate the time needed to get to San Diego down the gridlocked I-5 South on a Friday night. Leaving myself what I thought was plenty of time (an hour) after a Friday afternoon business meeting in Encinitas, I still found myself calling the restaurant and letting them know I was going to be 20 minutes late for our 6:30 reservations. Knowing that our destination was a popular and busy spot, I expected to hear a slightly condescending hostess voice combined with just the right amount of false regret tell me something like, “Sorry, but we can only hold your reservations for 15 minutes,” which would have meant hustling to come up with a Plan B for the evening out with my love. Instead, I got a pleasant, slightly Italian accented woman’s voice that commisserated with my plight for a few seconds and ended with, “Don’t you worry one bit. Your table will be ready when you get here.” Very well, then…one less thing to make my neck stiff for the next 45 minutes!
Solare Ristorante Italiano & Lounge, helmed by Chef Accursio Lota, is located a bit off the beaten path (or perhaps on a newer, slowly becoming more popular path) at Liberty Station in San Diego, former home of the Naval Training Center. A recent Reader’s Pick in a local magazine for “Best Chef” and “Best Italian Restaurant,” it was no surprise to find the dining room, the outdoor patio and the bar packed and turning over when we arrived. With the exception of the few minutes it took to clear a table and prepare it for the next round of guests, I did not notice an empty table throughout our two hour visit.
On arrival, we were immediately seated at a nice little two top next to the Christmas tree, just inside the bar area with a great view of the “action” such as it was. It was an unseasonably chilly evening. With the outdoor patio, the restaurant is set up to be open so that servers and guests can pass unimpeded from indoor to out – generally a good idea in our fair city – just not on this evening. We ate with our jackets on, as did most of the diners in the restaurant. In fact, as we were leaving, we noticed that it was significantly warmer on the patio under the propane heaters than it was inside the restaurant.
Service was prompt upon our being seated. Specials were discussed, drinks were ordered and served relatively quickly – relatively, in this case, means that our server, knowledgeable on the menu and friendly, had tables inside and outside and a lot of them. We saw her pass by about every 5 minutes or so and she always had food or drinks in her hand. A dirty martini was dropped off on one of her return trips – a quick sip after she darted off confirmed it was not dirty. No problem. A quick flag down of our server five minutes later and she brought the drink back made to order another 5 minutes later.
Famished by the 1 1/2 hour slow crawl through Friday night traffic, but wanting to let our drinks warm us with a minimum of interference, we started out with the Wagyu Carpaccio. It came adorned with seasonal fresh herbs, greens and vegetables – good, classic and fresh. The paper thin Wagyu slices underneath had a light application of olive oil and were equally naturally presented with a minimum of adulteration.
The complimentary bread here is housemade, airy and fluffy. Several pieces had sun dried tomato slices on top which were a fabulous accent – not too sweet or concentrated, but with a punch of flavor that woke up dormant taste buds. Combined with the buttery olive oil, this was a big hit at our table to the tune of us asking for another basket when we finished the first. It eventually arrived when we asked a second time.
With that said, here’s a note about the service – it was solid. It was a bit forgetful in places, but willing and comfortable. With plenty of time and a great vantage point to observe the happenings, it seemed as though every employee we saw enjoyed their job and interacted well with the guests. We received a polite, professional, yet homey and conversational type of service. It had a feel that might work better in a place about half the size in a much more intimate setting. Here, on a busy Friday night, it dragged a bit and suffered ever so slightly from either understaffing or an unexpected volume of diners.
Regarding the food, Chef Lota makes a statement that is printed right on the dinner menu, “In our cooking, I select fresh ingredients every day. I maintain personal relationships with our suppliers, and know the exact sources of our meat, fish and vegetables. This respect for raw ingredients is the starting point for our style in the kitchen. Blending modern and traditional tastes, we play with new textures and flavors while honoring the simple essences of Italian cuisine. The resulting dishes are delicately prepared, light, healthy, and brimming with the natural flavors of our fresh ingredients. Our commitment here at Solare is to serve the cuisine of today, created with all the love and attention to detail from generations past.”
This is an important statement to me for a few reasons. First, right off the bat, Chef’s publicly holding himself to a standard – Freshness and purity of sourcing for his ingredients, which can only be achieved the old-fashioned way – knowing your suppliers personally. Secondly, he prepares the diner for what to expect – delicately prepared, light Italian cuisine with predominant natural flavors. Thirdly, he lets us know that he experiments. This means that every dish may not be the traditional preparation, texture or flavor that is expected.
Case in point was our next selection – a pasta dish. We went with the short rib ravioli. This was the only dish of the night that, frankly, didn’t quite make sense or taste how we would have imagined. The short rib stuffing in the ravioli had a softness/mushiness to it with a texture similar to potted meat. The pasta was a bit overcooked for our tastes – a bit more firmness might have offset the texture of the filling. There was a touch of fig-like sweetness on the plate that, given the flavors that were present, didn’t really fit – in fact, the fig (or whatever it was), even in the small amount it was presented, overwhelmed the light flavor of the ravioli with a sticky sweetness that became the predominant overtone in the dish.
One of the specials for the evening was a white truffle risotto that weighed in at a hefty $50. Truffle dishes are always on our list to try when we can get fresh ones, yet, even the understanding that the Italian white truffle season is shorter than a lightning strike didn’t help us justify the cost. So, trying to stick to something approximating a reasonable dinner budget, we opted instead for the standard menu item of black truffle risotto which also came topped with three wild scallops for half the price. Home run! The truffle flavor, while definitely on the wilder side as is normally the case with the black version, was mild and perfume-like, delicately enough presented to allow the scallops their proper place in the dish. During this course we asked our server for some salt and pepper, which she quickly provided in the form of a small bowl of sea salt and a peppercorn grinder.
Here’s a note on what to expect for flavor and seasoning here – We found a full range of flavor present and accounted for. The seasoning, however, as might be expected given Chef’s self-proclaimed predilection for allowing the natural flavors to shine through, was not at a level that we preferred. With that said, there’s no amount of salt and pepper that can make a bland or blase dish better – only saltier and spicier. In the case of Chef Lota’s presentations, a couple of pinches of salt and a quick turn or three on the peppercorn grinder gave food that was “nice” an upward turn trending toward “wonderful.”
Beautifully executed Osso Bucco nestled on a bed of saffron risotto was my Doll‘s choice for entree. The gravy had a smooth consistency that was rich with vegetable and herb flavors. The pork shank was just the right amount of fork firm and tooth tender and the risotto, well, it was infused with saffron and retained the al dente toothiness that is so difficult to achieve – hard to improve on that. Three balsamic marinated crimini mushrooms added a touch of sweetness and acid to the dish that was a not unwelcome accent.
I can only surmise that the Cioppino on the menu here is an old home country recipe, perhaps a precursor to the similar creation that is the the signature dish of San Francisco. For this one, after a quick taste, I also asked for some Tabasco, as I felt the extra spice and vinegar would help bring out some of the flavors. Our server complied by also bringing a shaker bottle of what she said was one of Chef’s house recipes, a pepper oil. So, after tasting a drop on my finger, I added both. Wow, this was a rich, herbacious, full-bodied and now, spicy bowl of goodness that only got better the longer it sat. It was loaded with seafood, pretty much three of everything, large wild shrimp, wild scallops, mussels, squid, clams and seabass. The cherry tomatoes were a particularly nice touch in the succulent and savory dish giving a perfect burst of slightly acidic sweetness to help cut through the aromatic pungency. This got my vote for best dish of the night and one of the best Cioppino’s I’ve ever had.
Here’s the Rundown:
Location/Ambience – Liberty Station, decent parking within easy walking distance. On a typical San Diego night, the openness of the place and the wide wrap around patio present a country-esque, plantation like feel, albeit overlooking brick buildings and asphalt streets and parking lots. Guests here were immersed in conversation and enjoying themselves. By San Diego standards, it was cold on this evening and eating indoors while wearing a jacket is outside of normal expectations for most diners.
Price/Value – Pretty standard date night pricing here, which makes it an excellent value – expect $50 -$70 per diner with cocktails/wine by the glass and an appetizer or two with dinner. By the way, the wine selection here is pretty amazing as was our server’s knowledge of the offerings.
Cuisine/Service – The service seemed to suffer a bit on the time and detail side. It was clear that our server, while she never seemed overwhelmed, might have benefitted from having perhaps one less table to handle, which might have allowed her to visit her tables a bit more frequently. However, courses arrived hot and fresh, the table was bussed regularly and we felt well attended most of the evening. A drink order was messed up, but that could have been the lone bartender trying to keep track of a restaurant full of imbibers. We asked the busser for an additional bread basket, and he responded affirmatively with a smile, but it never showed. Our server got it out to us quickly once we asked the second time, but it should be noted that it usually meant about a 5-10 minute lag each time we had to ask for something, including seasonings.
The food was well-executed. Textures, flavors and presentation were, for the most part, on par with what should be expected from an upper mid-level establishment. As previously mentioned, don’t be afraid to ask for seasonings to be brought to the table. In fact, if I were to make a single recommendation to improve the experience here, I would say that having the seasonings available on each table would make less experienced guests a bit less self-conscious about asking for and using them.
The Takeaway – In a word, Solare Restaurant and Chef Accursio Lota are honest. From service to food, there is an underlying purity here that is refreshing. They’re not perfect, but they seem to work hard at providing a pleasing experience and putting out food that has character without being threatening.
The majority of casual diners will love Solare as is evidenced by the fact that they are playing to a packed house. At the end of the day, what matters are the Visa and Mastercard votes for what this Chef and restaurant are doing, and, on that front, what they are doing seems to be wildly successful. Highly recommended for a date night or family dinner. Business dinners could be fine here providing the service pace is maintained. Anyone on a tight schedule should consider the slower paced service before making reservations. Cheers, my friends!
2820 Roosevelt Rd.
Liberty Station, Point Loma
San Diego, CA 92106