March 13, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Solo Bistro takes sophistication to an innovative level

By NANCY HEISER

BATH - Do you go out of your way to seek excellent cuisine? So do I. When you travel, do you spend a good chunk of your time determining where and how you'll get good local food? Me too. Do you spend your weekends butchering a pig or fermenting libations? You lost me there.

click image to enlarge

Solo Bistro owners Pia and Will Neilson have turned an ordinary storefront into a chic space.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

SOLO BISTRO, 128 Front St., Bath. 443-3373; solobistro.com

RATING: ***1/2

HOURS: 5 p.m. to closing Tuesday to Saturday. Open every day in summer.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4 to $10; entrees, $12 to $25. Apart from its regular menu, Solo Bistro offers a three-course, prix fixe dinner for $22.99 every night. It's $15.99 on Wednesdays.

CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Visa and Mastercard

VEGETARIAN DISHES: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE OPTIONS: By request

KIDS: Welcome. There's no special menu, but the chef will accommodate a reasonable request such as a simple pasta.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Preferred, but usually not essential in the wintertime.

BOTTOM LINE: Solo Bistro is the go-to place in Bath for sophisticated, contemporary dining. Entrees are prepared with an expert touch. A casually chic atmosphere with relaxed and thoughtful service. Admirable attention to every detail of design. With a little tweaking, this restaurant would land squarely in four-star territory.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

H Unsatisfactory

HH Fair

HHH Good

HHHH Excellent

HHHHH Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was poor.

All this is by way of introduction. I am a new restaurant reviewer for this column. I've been writing newspaper and magazine stories, many about food, in Maine for 25 years.

Attitudes toward eating out (and in) have changed. Food is much more than what you eat and how it tastes. It is style, politics, values, a form of self-expression. In the past few years, Maine's culinary scene -- farms, creameries, seafood purveyors, etc., as well as restaurants -- has evolved and drawn national accolades.

I write with this awareness as well as a sense of responsibility. I dine anonymously, without complimentary anything, without an inside track. I will try to be fair to patrons and restaurateurs alike.

Now let's dig in and head to Solo Bistro in Bath, the City of Ships.

A silky and rich chestnut soup that Chef Esau Crosby created and served autumns ago is one of my blissful food memories. Tony Lavelle now helms the kitchen, and has since October. Like his predecessor, he prepares sophisticated food, adding innovative touches to a seasonally changing menu.

We started with three appetizers. The pureed potato and butternut squash soup ($4) was golden and rich, with welcome flecks of potato skin. A salad of wilted spinach with golden raisins and beets in a sherry vinaigrette ($8) arrived warm and amply dressed, piquant and sweet. The cornmeal crusted fish cakes ($8), served with chipotle/honey and cilantro/cream sauces, by themselves seemed bland and more cornmeal than fish.

We had a chance to relax and change focus before our entrees came out of the kitchen. Even a long wait would have been forgotten by the next course; both dishes were outstanding.

Scallops encrusted ever-so-slightly with semolina and fennel ($25) were attractively placed upon, rather than drenched in, orange honey butter. These five gems of seafood, tender as they come, tasted subtly sweet with that fennel-licorice overtone. They were accompanied by carrot coins that were cooked to retain a bit of bite, and light and smooth mashed potatoes sourced from local farms, as is much of the food.

The kitchen cooked a spice-rubbed and aged tamari-glazed flatiron steak ($20) perfectly medium rare, as requested. A heaping mound of skin-on potato fries accompanied the four thick, fanned-out and tender slices. The rub ingredients -- thyme, coriander, fennel, and red and black pepper -- added a snappy and slightly salty (in this case, a good thing) coating to the robust beef.

Other tempting main dishes we didn't have a chance to try included pan-seared duck breast with black currant red wine sauce, a cider-brined pork chop with maple whiskey glaze, and miso-roasted cod with a soy ginger reduction.

All desserts are house-made and cost $7. We found the cranberry compote accompanying the cheesecake of the day delightfully sour, but the dessert's hard crust outsized its cheese filling. The rosemary flavor of the sorbet overarched the pear's. So, in two minor instances, balance was lacking. But there are other delicious-sounding options for finishing, as well as organic teas, espresso coffee and several aperitifs.

Solo Bistro's wine list includes about 50 bottles and 20 by the glass, with some economical choices. My companion had a peppery Arido Malbec from Argentina ($6). I found the Sella and Mosca Italian Cannonau ($6), which is a Sardinian Gre-nache, a bit harsh, and when our server asked if I liked it, I was honest. Co-owner Pia Neilson, working the front of the house, returned with a smoother, easier Fat Cat Pinot Noir at no charge. Chalk up several points for service.

In fact, from the moment our greeter hung up our coats to the time the bill came, service was thoughtful, unobtrusive, relaxed and well-timed. High marks here.

Design is Solo Bistro's crowning touch. Pia and Will Neilson have turned an ordinary storefront into a chic, contemporary space. It's Scandinavian minimal, with blond tables and comfortable plastic chairs that pop with color. The airy, uncluttered atmosphere is refreshingly apart from the New England vernacular.

Carefully chosen Finnish glasses and flatware enhance the dining experience. Below street level, where the full bar and a few tables are located, is more grotto-like and a good spot for large parties to perch for the night. 

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national and regional publications.

 

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