(Solo Bistro Dining Room)
I have enjoyed dining at Solo Bistro for a few years now and Chef Tony Lavelle offers a wide range of protein-centric dishes that accommodate whichever mood I happen to be in. Located in Bath, a setting that’s a hybrid between a large town and a very small city, the demographic is small enough that they rely on the local clientele. It’s nice that they make no attempt to disguise their Bath location; there is a chalkboard outside the entrance that serves as an additional form of signage and advertises the specials. The location is definitely the antithesis of restaurants like Arrows, White Barn Inn, or Primo, which project distanciation from the community, to the point that they are located in worlds unto themselves.
With a 5:15 reservation, we were the first to arrive for dinner and were seated in the larger of two dining rooms. There’s a strong discord between the two rooms, with the smaller one decorated in bold colors and the other filled with more industrial earth tones. However, the two are unified through an airy feel, with tables well-spaced. I am difficult to please when it comes to restaurant atmospheres since I like to feel a sense of wonder or excitement yet I also prefer clean, comfortable settings—to be sure, this is a difficult balance to satisfy. While there’s nothing especially stimulating about the setting, it is nevertheless satisfying as there are nice decorative motifs throughout, such as the “Eat Good Food” painting shown in the picture above. There is also clear intentionality with regard to the service ware, which is amusing in its aesthetics if not always the most functional. Ultimately, the setting is pleasing not because it is particularly breathtaking but because it allows for a sleek, clean change of setting without having to leave one’s own neighborhood.
I have always found the cuisine and décor to inhabit a nice balance between exoticism and comfort that perhaps makes it a useful site through which to devise a taxonomy for the neighborhood restaurant. Specifically, there are a number of attributes evinced by the restaurant that satisfy the criteria of neighborhood restaurant: a) location on the main street of the town; b) a menu filled with comfortable options that are bolstered by a touch of exoticism; c) a provincial clientele and an intimate relationship with the community; d) a favorite spot for an upscale night out while not having to leave town; e) a chef-driven menu, such that the restaurant is a big fish in a small pond. Other restaurants that cohere within this taxonomy would be Slates in Hallowell, ME, Mache Bistro in Bar Harbor, ME, and Ruxbin in Noble Square, Chicago (though the ‘big fish in a small pond’ dynamic is certainly not as common in Chicago.) Neighborhood restaurants are not alienating and the setting is comfortable, vibrant, and familiar; they are perhaps the direct inverse of hotel restaurants, which are typically more removed from their environs.
The menu was expansive, with 7 starters, 11 mains and a 3-course prix fixe. It was also amusingly redundant, with a hanger steak entrée that was unnecessary due to the New York strip that was on the regular menu. In a gesture to appeal to the community, Solo Bistro offers a 3-course prix fixe every night for just $24.99 and on Wednesday this price drops to $17.99. The allure of the menu proper is that it accommodates virtually every taste that one could have—fish options included char, halibut, scallops, lobster, swordfish; the meat choices were pork tenderloin, a burger, and the two steaks. What the menu gains in expansiveness it loses in precision; it was evident that they privilege the protein over the accompaniments, and every protein was simply listed as being served with “nightly accompaniments.” Other than the prix fixe, they do not change their menu often; the benefit of this is that one can return frequently, developing a ritualistic attraction to their favorite item. However, the protein preparations were fairly exotic and showed a good deal of multiculturalism; the char and strip steak were cooked in Argentine preparations, with corn salsa and chimichurri, respectively; the halibut was miso roasted; and the vegetarian entrée (Moroccan spiced vegetables) and swordfish (tomato and olive salsa) referenced Mediterranean cuisines. The contrast between the creative proteins and their nondescript accompaniments reflects the interplay between creativity and bland comfort that is to my mind a hallmark of the neighborhood restaurant.
I was drawn to the miso roasted halibut, while my dad ordered the burger. We shared the grilled flat bread as a starter. Our server was unpolished although very enthusiastic. One source of irritation for me is that when she first arrived at our table she asked if we had been to Solo Bistro before; I understand that she is instructed to say this to every table but it still annoys me, especially since I’d been to the restaurant five times in the past two years.
I always look forward to the bread service as they make their butter in house and the preparation changes nightly; on this occasion it was made with lime and thyme. The focaccia was great but the flavor of the butter was too muted and the lime indistinguishable.
The flatbread had a classic combination of cherry tomato, basil, and mozzarella (note: the picture below was taken after I’d already pulled off one slice.) We both enjoyed it—for some reason, I don’t care for cherry tomatoes when raw but enjoy them cooked. However, I would have liked a bit more creativity in the ingredients as it was a bit close to what one would find in a basic margherita pizza, and flatbreads usually have more unusual ingredients. The side salad offered a slight bitterness that offset the pizza although I continue to believe that a pile of greens simply doesn’t hold much visual appeal.
Our main dishes arrived after a short wait—the halibut was served with somewhat comical accoutrements—roasted potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Given the season, I didn’t envision having halibut with roasted potatoes and root vegetables, and I still don’t think these were the ideal accompaniments. If the temperature were a bit cooler outside, the combination wouldn’t have been so awkward but with the hot ‘Indian summer’ day outside, it was a bit heavy. However, I decided to consume everything in isolation and wound up enjoying the dish quite a bit—the root vegetables actually went quite well with the miso. The halibut/miso combination was outstanding and while the fish was a bit overcooked for my taste, halibut is my favorite fish and so I reveled in the inherent pleasures of the fish. It is, however, impossible for me to analyze the preparation objectively—it had been a month since I’d last had it and if I consumed it more recently, it’s certainly possible that I would have been more underwhelmed. Also, the last time I’d had halibut was at Graham Elliot, where I’d suffered through the worst preparation of my life (cooked sous vide in butter with mashed potatoes), and so this really shined by comparison.
My dad’s burger arrived with cheddar, chipotle aioli, and a side salad (substituted for fries.) I think a burger is a staple of the neighborhood restaurant, and Solo Bistro sources their meat locally. One of the pleasures of dining at Solo Bistro is the service ware—the creatively-shaped dishes influence one’s visual perception of the dish in exciting ways, punctuating the appearance of an otherwise unremarkable dish. My dad enjoyed the preparation and the chipotle aioli was a good example of the ‘touch of the exotic’ characteristic of the neighborhood restaurant.
We were quite satisfied with our meal thus far and shared two desserts—chocolate mousse with salted toffee and whipped cream and lemon poppy seed yoghurt cake with blueberries and raspberries. I ordered the latter dessert in part because it was so similar to the poppy seed bundt cake with Maine berries that I’d ordered at Fore Street a couple of months ago, and this was a superior rendition (moister and with a more cutting citrus flavor) but still disappointing. The yoghurt was bland and tasted flat—Greek yoghurt (or ice cream) would have added more complexity. It’s a bit uncanny that Solo Bistro and Fore Street would have served such identical desserts, although given the mediocrity of both presentations I’m not certain they’re worth staying on either menu.
The other dessert was outstanding—the chocolate could have been richer but the toffee added great contrasting texture. It’s possible that this resonated so strongly simply because it shone in comparison with the other dessert, but it was undeniably delicious. If a restaurant serves a popular dessert like chocolate mousse, they really have to either make it revisionist or execute it with superlative skill, and this was an example of the latter. While it was by no means a groundbreaking concept, I wouldn’t hesitate to order this on future visits to the restaurant.
Overall, this was one the better meals I’ve had at Solo Bistro, although this was in part due to some foresight on my part. For one thing, I deliberately chose to go during the week, not because it was easier to get a table but because for whatever reason I usually look for more dramatic restaurant experiences on weekends. While I am usually careful not to go into the restaurant with heightened expectations, on weekends I usually expect a more stimulating experience—one that Solo Bistro wouldn’t have been able to deliver. Also, if I’d had to drive more than ~45 minutes to get there I likely wouldn’t have had such an enjoyable experience. By going during the week, the restaurant made a greater impact than it would have on the weekend. To this end, Solo Bistro really shouldn’t be measured against Maine’s most famous restaurants (Arrows, Primo, Fore Street, White Barn Inn, etc.) but instead appreciated for the relationship that it’s cultivated with its community. I look forward to picking a weeknight in the future and returning for a well-executed protein and chocolate mousse for dessert.