Restaurant Reviews

Sol Shines

Sol Kitchen in Delray Beach is the sunny new sister of 32 East. Both are located on the same block of East Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, both are operated by the Straub restaurant team, and both offer menus orchestrated by Executive Chef Nick Morfogen, whose glowing résumé includes training at the Culinary Institute of America, stints at Napa Valley's acclaimed Tra Vigne and Aspen's landmark Ajax Tavern, and a 1996 Chef of the Year accolade from Food & Wine magazine. More praise has come his way since the unveiling of 32 East's New American menu in 1999. Now, Morfogen teams with Sol's top toque, Ryan Brown (formerly chef d' cuisine up the street), to cook up what might be called New American Southwestern cuisine, which focuses on foods from that region supplemented by influences from other sun-baked areas such as Mexico, Texas, South Florida, Southern California, Latin America, and Cuba.

A stylishly faux-weathered décor greets customers as they enter Sol; the 90-seat space is awash in lime-green banquettes, vibrantly patterned fabrics, tin ceiling panels (and wainscoting), atmospheric photos by Michael Eastman, wooden tables and accents, and pine floors. There's also a cartload of arts and crafts suggestive of this hemisphere's aforementioned sweaty territories. On paper, this may all seem disjointed, but the disparate design elements unify into a cohesive, comfortable, and quite lovely dining room -- it probably helps that the lighting is minimal, much of it provided by hanging Moroccan fixtures that dimly emit trippy light patterns on the walls. There likewise wasn't much wattage in the tiny flashlight that our waitress handed to me when she noticed that I was squinting at the menu. Service here still has a few kinks to work out but is surprisingly strong for a restaurant barely four months old.

I was half-expecting the waitress to bring me a hearing aid too, for when Sol fills with diners, which is often, the resultant chatter and clatter bounce off the tin and produce a din that makes it tough to hear those seated across the table. It was also difficult to discern the restaurant's recorded music -- an assortment of agreeable tunes from Al Green to the Tom Tom Club -- playing at a fairly high volume. When a restaurant is this noisy, it's usually referred to as having a "buzz." Why isn't it called a "roar"?

The food at Sol is likewise loud, practically every plate splashed with brash, earthy flavors. Chef Brown may juggle all manner of hot-weather regional cuisine, but what comes through strongest is a Bobby Flay-inspired Southwestern cooking style imbued with fresh ideas, spirited recipes, and an exciting collision of colors, textures, and tastes.

There is no predinner bread. You can, however, order one of two "sharing" starters meant to take its place: thin, fried strips of spiced yucca with fresh guacamole or a full-flavored fish dip made with cobia, wahoo, or dolphin that's been house-smoked with peachwood and hickory and bound with aioli. The dip is accompanied by what appears to be fried tortilla chips but are white corn crackers that taste like a cross between the two.

By all means, make sure to order the fish taco, a soft corn tortilla stuffed with tender nuggets of fried dolphin, shredded cabbage, guacamole, and tomato. The stellar tastes contained within shine even brighter with a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of piquant homemade chipotle sauce, a jar of which sits on each table. The taco is the moderately priced menu's best bargain -- though its listing at "$4.75 each" suggests that more than one might be needed to satisfy; this is not the case. It's true that the average person could easily eat more than one and would very much like to, but try to save room for some other alluring items, like clams steamed with Dos Equis, which is made up of plump littlenecks subtly imbued with beery aromatics. Soft, hefty wedges of Texas toast were meant to sop up the beer-and-clam juice at the bottom of the bowl, but the liquid was a tad too salty for that. A squirt of chipotle mayo on the bread did nothing and was especially superfluous in light of the more convincing chipotle in the jar.

A short selection of vibrantly composed salads manages to offer something for almost every taste under the sun: Traditionalists will thrill to iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon/blue cheese dressing; sophisticated diners might prefer seared lamb and arugula with artichokes and manchego cheese; Floribbean-minded folks can have romaine lettuce topped by avocado, cashews, hearts of palm, and Gulf shrimp vinaigrette; and those who love fruit and are perhaps plagued by a subtle drinking problem should find solace in their mixed greens and Florida oranges in Sangría vinaigrette.

Main courses will appeal to anyone who appreciates sassy, robust food. One of the most popular items is a sizable, golden-brown burrito of crisp, pastry-like tortilla crust packed with scrumptious, slow-braised pulled pork, perked up with sherry, cumin, and a compendium of spices and punctuated by just a small amount of black bean purée and Jack cheese. The same burrito is available with a wide array of garden vegetables and a kick of poblano peppers taking the place of the pork.

A pair of barbecue items -- chicken and ribs -- are solidly prepared and sensibly plated with all-American sides like baked beans and corn as well as apple-flecked slaw, mashed cinnamon-spiced yams, and bacon-braised greens. These are rather ordinary when compared to the seafood entrées, which I found to be Sol's brightest offerings. A juicy cut of grilled dolphin, sided by three long, crisp yucca fries and thick slices of lush, ripe, red and yellow Cherokee heirloom tomatoes dressed in a lime juice and cumin-based mojo, was a light and delightful dinner. Fish of the day, grilled grouper, was equally compelling, with smoky, tangerine-oiled, grilled escarole and red lentils enhanced with ham hocks. New Orleans apparently basks in enough rays to qualify for Sol's Sun Tour too; piquant, smoky, and sweet notes mingled in blackened sea scallops bathed in a warm, shellfish-based "jambalaya vinaigrette."

32 East's praiseworthy pastry chef, Max Canter, now oversees Sol's desserts too, but the selection at this time is limited to just three not particularly challenging treats: smugglers' rum cake; a "Garcia Grinder" composed of two brownie-like chocolate chocolate-chip cookies sandwiching a wallop of Cherry Garcia ice cream; and Cuban coffee flan that was extraordinarily dark, rich, smooth, and satisfying, the flavor so coffee-intensive, I fretted over its potential to keep me up all night.

A busy bar near the front of the restaurant, marked by a bright-orange façade, is stocked with martinis, tap beers, more than 100 bottles of wine, and contemporary cocktail concoctions like the Kavosick, a white zinfandel spritzer with watermelon schnapps and skewered gummy bear garnish; I'd be surprised to learn that they drink this in Texas or New Mexico. Few restaurants carry such creativity into the realm of nonalcoholic beverages, but Sol savvily serves a slew of homemade drinks such as lemon, lime, and orangeade, by the pitcher or glass. These offer a refreshing salve for the boldly seasoned foods and are also great for quenching thirst in a blistering hot spot -- like, for instance, Sol Kitchen.

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Lee Klein