Just as some restaurant spaces seem jinxed, others radiate indisputably good vibes, attracting culinary talent with the gravitational pull of a tiny planet.
That doesn't necessarily always equate to roaring financial success, especially if one considers the revolving-door parade of chefs and owners that has passed through the cozy BYOB at 614 W. Lancaster Ave. over the last several years as it changed its name from Saranac to Spezia to Sola.
But I've always appreciated the lofty ambitions that have consistently tried to buoy this 50-seat box of a room into a fine-dining destination for Bryn Mawr.
Dave Clouser, 34, is the latest tenant and the second chef-owner of Sola, having purchased the business (with partners Michael Kersnick and Donna Mozzone) from chef John Wolferth. His approach has been more to refine the bistro rather than overtly change it, altering the color scheme to butter yellows and blue, adding a few extra inches of needed comfort to the previously tight tabletops, installing glass breakfronts to hold the fine Austrian crystal.
There is no longer a special charge to use the better stemware, as Sola's predecessor, Spezia, had peevishly insisted. But Sola is one of the rare local BYOBs that does charge a corkage fee - $2 per table, no matter how many bottles are opened - which Clouser insists allows him to charge less than $30 for all entrees, some of which include luxury items like lobster or rack of lamb.
Every dollar apparently counts in such a small room, especially when attempting to pull off legitimate fine-dining fare, which brings in lower profit margins than a more modest menu would. But such a small stage also puts a bright spotlight on the cooks behind the scene. And Clouser may just have the talent to turn Sola into the culinary magnet it can be, with an appealing New American menu that pays attention to seasonality and local ingredients, and well-cooked dishes that are clever but not contrived.
When it's all working together with outgoing and personal service, as it was on my second visit, it's easy to see why this comfortable Lancaster Avenue nook should be on every hungry Main Liner's gastronomic speed dial.
We began with huge, intertwined shrimp, grilled with a tangy pomegranate barbecue glaze, over a fresh salad of sweet mango, crunchy jicama, and cucumber tossed with lime and chile spice. Roasted "Spooky" pumpkins were melted into lobster bisque, tinted earthy and exotic with curry, for a stellar first course in Sola's weekday prix-fixe menu, a super three-course bargain at $32.
The butternut squash soup looked similar to the pumpkin bisque, but tasted completely different, sparked with sweet chunks of caramelized Asian pear and crispy plumes of fried sage. A beet salad presented a familiar combination - beet rounds, frisee lettuce, blue cheese, and toasty candied walnuts. But each element was perfect and distinct, adding up to clear harmony.
The entrees were equally fine. Wonderfully tender grilled hanger steak, topped with a melting pat of blue cheese butter, came with a ragout of chanterelles and amazingly crisp fingerling potato "frites" stacked like Lincoln logs. A superbly moist slice of wild king salmon and a butter-soft head-on prawn came perched atop a crisped cake of shredded roast potatoes. A spectacularly tender and well-seasoned rack of lamb arrived standing at attention, each individual chop propped up by mounds of Provençale ratatouille over braised fennel puree and vibrant green smears of pureed mint "paint."
And just when I thought we'd had enough, a tiny bowl of rock shrimp and pea risotto appeared - an unsolicited little gift after our waiter overheard talk of an anniversary.
Such outgoing gestures are the true mark of a place that strives to do the little things right. If only Sola could be a bit more consistent - both in service and food - it could become that something special.
My first visit was immediately dampened by attitude from another waiter who fliply dismissed our questions about the spinach with the short ribs - this, at the height of the recent e. coli scare. He literally rolled his eyes when pressed to find out where it came from (the essential question, to which he did not know the answer), and the mood never quite recovered.
The kitchen, meanwhile, was not in prime form, either. The short rib over mashed parsnips was slightly dry and chewy. The Szechuan-seared tuna appetizer over Chinese eggplant was a few degrees overspiced. A late-season soft-shell crab with an appealing avocado relish was lost inside a billow of less-than-crisp tempura crust. A butter-poached lobster could have been more tender, and was upstaged by its garnish of a veggie-filled crepe.
And yet there were still some excellent dishes: a creamy corn soup scattered with lobster, a decadent pairing of foie gras and succulent scallop, and port-poached seckel pear. The duo of duck was one of the kitchen's best offerings, seared breast and herby confit leg posed over caraway-scented choucroute studded with crunchy bits of pork belly.
The choucroute, ringed by foie gras-enriched duck jus, is a savory souvenir of the five-month stint Clouser spent cooking in Alsace, a nice complement to the quiver of local kitchen gigs - Susanna Foo, Nectar, Krazy Kats - that give this chef a rich depth of experiences to draw on.
The desserts, meanwhile, are limited to decent renditions of typical chef sweets such as creme brulee, cheesecake and bread pudding, and could use some fresh inspiration. But if this rendition of Sola lasts long enough - and I hope it does - I'm sure this bistro's good planetary vibes might pull in a good pastry chef, too.