By Adam Estrem
Why is it that Solera Cocina de España is not on people’s radar anymore? The bigger question is why, in a volatile Minneapolis restaurant market, has Solera continually been open in downtown Minneapolis for years, serving food that can have Minnesotans confused if not uncomfortable?
I don’t have all the answers, but I think with the changing tastes of the Twin Cities — moving ever so far from the ketchup-glazed meatloaf and closer to the honey harissa-glazed quail — Solera’s gastronomic comeback is inevitable.
But how Spanish can a Spanish restaurant be in the United States, let alone in Minnesota? I was curious to say the least. I had been to Solera before, but that was when Midwest celebrity chef Tim McKee was at the helm. A younger, possibly more ambitious chef, Jorge Guzman is now leading the way in the kitchen.
Though Guzman’s roots are Mexican and not Spanish, he has tried to keep the authenticity of the Spanish dining experience in the forefront of the restaurant’s food.
I have been to Spain before, but not long enough to claim any authority on Spanish cuisine. But, an opportunity arose when a friend called asking about a place to eat with a friend who was in town from Spain. Perfect! Nieves Sayre, originally from Toledo, Spain, who was desperately home sick from living in the corn-induced coma state known as Iowa, needed a taste of home.
I couldn’t think of a better opportunity than to take a true Spaniard to a Spanish restaurant, surely she would know how authentic the food really was? So we planned it. I told Chef Guzman we were coming, but my intention was to plan a great experience for Nieves, not to write about the food.
Although, being a food writer, I still took notes on everything we ate. I met my friend Ashley and Nieves and I could see the excitement in their eyes.
Nieves does not speak English very well, but somehow is an articulate woman. Her excitement was bottled up and was ready to burst out of her mouth in a slur of Spanish I was not ready to comprehend. We sat down, and opened a bottle of Codorniu — a sparkling rose that had a sparkling cider like quality.
I let Nieves take a sip, her eyes closed as she swallowed slowly and simply said, “home.” Food, possibly more than anything else, seems to be able to instantly transport us somewhere. Whether it’s a vacation, or a trip down south, or back home thousands of miles away, food can instantly bring up memories of the past.
For Nieves, these were obviously good memories. With the bustle of the kitchen in the background, the train of dishes started to arrive. Prawns al Ajillo — head-on shrimp in a spicy garlic chili oil, and probably the best dish.
Catalan Sausage, reminiscent of a French Cassoulet had extreme depth of flavor. Grilled quail glazed with a honey harissa sauce had a wonderful balance of sweetness and a slight heat from chilies. Pulpo y Papas or octopus with potatoes had a great tang from a vinegar sofrito, though a bit chewy for my taste.
But, there was one dish that transported Nieves back home faster than any of the other dishes: Cold mussels in a simple vinegar sauce served over micro greens.
“These taste like Spain,” Nieves said, as she could barely chew her smile was so big.
At the time, the mussels were not on the menu, but should be in my opinion. The last dish, the simplest dish, was something I took for granted. Cheese. Nothing special, as I am very acquainted with a variety of cheeses, but to a Spanish teaching assistant living in Iowa, this was the one.
The Manchego cheese was brought to the table. Nieves slowly picked it up, as if handling a delicate piece of jewelry. She closed her eyes, inhaled the aroma of the cheese, and took a bite. I watched intently as her expression changed from excited to a relaxed state of melancholy.
Nieves opened her eyes, full of tears that lingered and refused to fall and simply said, “amazing.” Amazing. Cheese.
Solera did it. No, Solera may not be the perfect embodiment of that quaint Spanish restaurant you went to while vacationing in Madrid, but you know what? It’s close. If it can bring tears to a Spaniard’s eyes, it has to be close.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn’t working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (email@example.com).