Change is good.
Very good, judging from a few recent meals at Solera.
That's the restaurant now occupying the East Colfax Avenue space that housed the Firefly Cafe for many years and in 1999 became the much more sophisticated Ambrosia Bistro. Mark Gordon, Ambrosia's chef and co-owner, honed his grill skills at Carmine's on Penn and Santino's, and partner John Barocas kept things running fairly smoothly as Ambrosia's host. But then Gordon left, and the fill-in chefs were never able to get his ambitious menu right.
5410 East Colfax Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
5-11 p.m. Sunday
Roquefort pancake: $6
Ahi tuna: $9
Olympia oysters: $8
Foie gras: $12
Butterleaf salad: $7
Caesar with fried oysters: $7
Solera salad: $8
Half chicken: $16
Chilean sea bass: $24
Braised lamb: $22
Caribbean pork: $8
Grilled salmon: $10
Pan-roasted halibut: $13
Fresh mozzarella salad: $7
Cr�me br�l�e: $6
This past fall, though, Barocas caught the attention of Christian "Goose" Sorensen, a talented chef who'd shown promise at Mel's Restaurant and Bar, the long-gone Starfish and Tante Louise. Convinced that there was no place in town that would let him attempt his more esoteric cooking, Sorensen was about to leave Denver for San Francisco. Barocas got him to stay, giving him free rein in the kitchen. The two worked together to update the rest of the restaurant, painting the bistro-style dining room a warm, mustard yellow and hanging more appealing artwork. They also put a lot of elbow grease into fixing up the patio, which now sports wrought-iron furniture, a plethora of plants and a breezy, irresistible atmosphere that makes it possible to forget that Colfax is just a tiny parking lot away.
They also changed the restaurant's name.
The Spanish word solera refers to a wine-making process, most often used for sherries, that involves three or four rows of oak barrels filled with wine; the barrels on top hold the youngest batch and so on down to the floor, where the oldest wines reside. When it's time to bottle the wine, the winemakers start with the bottom row. A precise amount of wine from each barrel is then added to the row below it, and the top row is filled with new wine. The idea is to offer the most consistent product possible.
These days, Solera lives up to its name: It's consistently good.
Sorensen's buddy, wine-savvy Brian Klinginsmith, helped him buy out Barocas a few months ago, and the two now offer a dining experience that's well-rounded from start to finish. A good place to begin is with one of Solera's six sherries. Klinginsmith's wine list is full of good choices, with many bottles in the $20 to $40 range. And most of them go very well with Sorensen's eclectic fare, tantalizing dishes that push the envelope of what Denver considers "New American" without turning ludicrous.
For instance, cheese with cheese may sound redundant, but the blini-sized, Roquefort-tangy pancake topped with Brie made sense, especially paired with sweet Parma ham, paper-thin slices of red onion and a luxurious splash of truffle oil. The two cheeses actually pulled together the barrage of flavors, adding a rich depth that kept the dish from tasting too much like a ham-and-onion sandwich.
Other starters simply took old favorites to a new level. Seared ahi tuni appears on almost every upscale menu in town; here the thin slices were laid out over a seaweed salad studded with sesame seeds and then topped with crispy, wasabe-fired rice chips and a thin, creamy peanut sauce. For an order of Olympia oysters, Sorensen gently pan-fried the plush bivalves rather than deep-frying or baking them, then added bits of smoky bacon and collard greens -- an underused but delightfully pungent green that might have obliterated the oysters' taste had it not been for a savvy use of lemon in the cayenne-spiked aioli. And while we've already seen the gingersnap that came with the slip of foie gras, there was also the surprise accompaniment of mango "carpaccio" -- fruit sliced so thin we could see through it -- as well as a handful of toasty cashews and an apple-sweet Calvados syrup.
Salads got special treatment, too. Butterleaf greens, a crunchier but still sweet variation on butterhead, had been tossed with Maytag blue cheese, a well-balanced Champagne vinaigrette and spicy walnuts for added interest. The Caesar had the requisite garlic, shaved grana cheese and anchovies, as well as fried oysters on top. And an appealing, tangy salad reminiscent of a Caprese substituted Haystack Mountain goat cheese for mozzarella; the cheese came smeared on crostini and layered with vine-ripe tomatoes and sharply tart olives, all of which had been drizzled with a sherry vinaigrette.
The highlight of our entree course was Sorensen's stellar, simultaneously fluffy and chunky mashed potatoes, which rated a Best of Denver award last month. Garlic-punched spuds came with the succulent, crispy-skinned half chicken; mascarpone-enriched potatoes sided a fillet of Chilean sea bass, which also sported a crunchy exterior and moist, silky flesh inside. The sea bass came with an off-the-wall fricassee of lobster-studded asparagus -- both ingredients delectably sodden with butter -- and a thickened beurre blanc speckled with paprika, a match-up I've yet to see elsewhere in town. And while few Denver chefs are willing to chance Brussels sprouts, Sorensen combined the dreaded vegetables with apples and crackly little bits of bacon until they were so sweet that even the pickiest kid would give them a try; the sprouts came with a braised lamb shank that was fall-off-the-bone tender.
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All told, only one dish at dinner missed its mark: The penne came with sautéed portobellos, asparagus, grana and breadcrumbs, which added a nice texture -- but the pasta had been drizzled with so much truffle oil that our throats felt like the filler tube in the car where the motor oil goes.
Solera works well at lunch, too, when it attracts area businessfolk and ladies who lunch. The sunny setting and nicely spaced tables are well-suited for both. So is the perfectly executed menu, a roster of straightforward pastas, sandwiches -- only the juicy, peppery Caribbean pork took any chances -- and salads. The fresh mozzarella salad actually was fresh, with roasted red peppers and pine nuts adding an unexpected twist. The two fish dishes worked swimmingly, too. One brought a large piece of impeccably grilled medium-rare salmon, along with mashers and a heavenly beurre blanc; the other was a flaky fillet of pan-roasted halibut served with a lightly curried, chilled couscous salad and a zesty cucumber salsa.
Crème brûlée with just the right touch of vanilla was the perfect finish to the meal.
Change is good. But is it too much to ask for Solera to now keep things the same?