Too much noise in a restaurant isn’t good, unless you don’t like your date and are glad for the excuse not to talk. But what about the opposite: too much quiet? That’s what I considered one night at Solitaire, which opened this spring in the lovingly renovated former Highland’s Garden Cafe, a sprawling space fashioned from two turn-of-the-last-century homes.
Despite open tables on the flower-bedecked patios (a spot by the fountain remains one of the town’s best) and space in the new bar and veranda, the hostess inexplicably led us to the more formal dining room upstairs, where at prime dinner hour there were exactly two guests: my husband and me. Self-conscious, we talked in whispers, joking about what we’d done to deserve not Solitaire, but solitary — as in confinement. As the night wore on, however, we began to see an upside to so much stillness: In an essentially private dining room, we could appreciate the food without distraction.
And there was a lot to appreciate. Although both the restaurant’s space and name are historic — chef-owner Mark Ferguson named Solitaire for a brand produced by the Morey Mercantile Company, founded in Denver by his great-great-grandfather — this meal was an ode to right now, with dishes designed to capture that blurry line between early and mid-season. “It’s funny,” says Ferguson, who spent twenty years with Wolfgang Puck, first at Spago and Lupo in Las Vegas and most recently as chef and managing partner at Spago in the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch. “People think [farm-to-table] is a cutting-edge theory, but it’s all we’ve ever known.”
For Solitaire, Andrea and Mark Ferguson revamped the former Highland's Garden Cafe.
That night’s ingredients featured white asparagus, shielded from sunlight for its entire life to fulfill this one elegant purpose, and bufala mozzarella, soaked for days in cream, olive oil and aromatics to make the sensual cheese even more come-hither. There were fresh figs, their ruddy bellies coaxed to a deeper sweetness by time on the grill; shards of Iberian ham in all its condensed, porcine glory; truffles from Umbria; and jiggly, sunny-side-up eggs, their yolks one fork tine away from releasing their gold. Balancing this largesse were halved Bing cherries the color of sunset’s final stab before night takes over, and plums that brought to mind that poem by William Carlos Williams, the one apologizing for eating the fruit out of the icebox, so sweet and so cold. All this in just the overture, the opening two plates: charred white asparagus and an unconventional Caprese.
The entire meal — and others on other nights — flowed like good conversation, every turn as good as the one that preceded it. Lamb scaloppini, pounded thin but not flour-dredged as the name would suggest, enthralled with figs, truffles and prosciutto. Medjool dates that should have collapsed under their own richness considering the bacon wrapper and foie gras stuffing somehow found their balance with nectarine purée and a dusting of Chinese five-spice powder. Hamachi had been poached in fennel stock for a light soup called aqua pazza, or “crazy water,” then accented with corn, fresno chiles and a fragile blossom straight from the garden. (Edible, I’m sure, though I don’t know what kind, being more of a cook than a gardener.) Hanger steak, that staple of French bistros, was seasoned and perfectly cooked, with sides that could’ve been pedestrian but weren’t, the zucchini curled into ribbons, the mushrooms minced into duxelles. Banana custard came in a chocolate-lined tart shell that splintered into buttery shards. All were served in small-plate portions, making them the right size for the exploring that we wanted — and were encouraged — to do.
Gloucester swordfish panzanella at Solitaire.
The reason that meals flowed so well at Solitaire wasn’t because we’d chosen wisely, as you’re forced to do at certain restaurants, or because we’d pressed servers to tell us what was best. (In truth, we disregarded several of their recommendations, if only because so many other dishes sounded appealing.) The menu itself is to thank, created with an inner harmony and no division between appetizers, entrees and desserts. “We design the menu as if it were a tasting menu, so you could literally start at the top and go all the way to the bottom,” explains Ferguson, who notes that each dish reflects not just seasonality, but “colors and texture and sweet and spicy and acidity.” The menu’s setup works like a good host at a dinner party, bringing together people of different backgrounds and making everyone feel like the best of friends by night’s end. That’s no coincidence: Ferguson opened the restaurant with his wife, Andrea Faulisi Ferguson, and sharing the host role are his two right hands, Steve Maline (chef de cuisine) and Chris Humphrey (pastry chef), who have been with him on and off for more than fifteen years. Together they design the menu, which turns over every few weeks and changes nightly to some degree as proteins, fruits and vegetables catch their eye.
What doesn’t change, however, is the dedication to detail, quite a task considering that Solitaire isn’t an intimate twenty-seater, but a restaurant that, at over 4,800 square feet, has a footprint the size of a steakhouse. If a dish has a component that takes three days to prepare — octopus, for example, that’s marinated, braised, marinated again and finally grilled in a stunning starter with a saffron zabaglione, chorizo and shishitos — it’s given all three days or it isn’t served at all.
Balsamic vinegar drizzled onto agnolotti with whipped goat ricotta.
The more I visited Solitaire, though, the more I considered a question that nagged me during my first meal there: Does the menu match the space? Solitaire’s menu is a restaurant menu through and through, with the ingredients, precision and artistry associated with special-occasion restaurants. Solitaire’s space, which rambles upstairs and downstairs, inside and out, is homey by its very nature. The menu that feels in sync with the more formal dining room — the one upstairs, with gray, high-backed microfiber chairs and a bay window overlooking the gardens — feels somehow too stiff for the windowed veranda, more of a sunroom meant for family, not for entertaining company. And what about the lounge off the bar, a spot with a fireplace and couches that looks like a place to which men used to retire, cigars and Scotch in hand? Those rooms call for comfort food, and other than pappardelle Bolognese (which is very fine, no doubt from all Ferguson’s years at Lupo), comfort food is in short supply here. A bar menu would help, but for now none is imminent. “We’ve thrown it around,” says Ferguson. “Whether we implement a bar menu, we’ll see.”
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Still, this disconnect between the menu and some of the spaces is a minor quibble at a restaurant this fine. After all, there’s already comfort food aplenty in this town, and plenty of rooms at Solitaire — even very quiet ones far from the lovely gardens — in which you can savor Ferguson’s exquisite fare.
3927 West 32nd Avenue
Stone fruit and tomato Caprese $12
White asparagus and Iberian ham $15
Bacon-wrapped foie gras dates $16
Pappardelle Bolognese $13
Solitaire aqua pazza $18
Hanger steak $23
Charred Spanish octopus $14
Lamb scaloppini $21
Banana cream pie $7
(None of these dishes may still be on the menu; it changes often.)
Solitaire is open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at solitairerestaurant.com.