By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Maybe not. My companion was staring at her plate of carpaccio ($9). "It's freaky red," she said, threading the meat sheets through a pile of arugula splashed with olive oil and lemon juice. And red it was. Not spanked-raw red, but the kind of red the members of Hole might smear on their lips if they could wash off that punch-bruise shade of lip-gloss. The beef, cured in pepper, kosher salt, and thyme before it's rolled on a "rockin' hot," un-oiled skillet and frozen slightly for better slicing, was thicker than the typical paper-thin versions. But it was tender, silky, and richly flavored nonetheless.
Espresso-cured venison ($24), deer meat from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, is pickled for about an hour in a mixture of brown sugar, ground espresso, coriander, and salt. The result is meat with tender juiciness threaded with a sweet, smooth raciness. A side of glazed sweet potatoes and pear chutney gave the thing a kind of home-cooking heartiness.
Other than the blurts from the sound system, the most pronounced peaks and valleys at Il Solé were found on the chef's tasting menu ($50 per person, $75 with wine). Not that the food was uninspiring by any means, though some courses were noticeably weak -- it's just that the wine pairings seemed, at best, uncertain.
This menu opened with roasted tomato-basil bisque floating fried basil leaves and a goat cheese crostini. Also floating on the soup surface were scraps of oven-dried prosciutto, odd little edibles with a waxy, crumbly disposition earned through their drying process. Surprisingly, this preparation didn't seem to intensify the meat flavors in a jerky sense. It was more like nibbling flakes from a pig's hoof. The soup was a bit too understated, with no tomato richness or acidic liveliness. Though smooth, it was just a bit too flaccid.
Which is maybe why the 1998 Beringer Founders Estate sauvignon blanc was a near perfect match. This wine, thin and watery with scant range or depth, offered little in the way of racy intensity.
Tamarind-glazed yellowfin tuna with spicy fried rice, shrimp won ton, and lemongrass butter was a little off as well. Though filled with intense, well-balanced flavors, the rare fish flesh was obnoxiously spongy. Yet the collection of flavors -- the tamarind and other spices -- made this dish engagingly assertive, especially in the spice department, which all but knocked the legs out from under the 1997 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay with which it was paired. The wine was ripe in texture, with ample citrus and pear flavors and nutty oak shadings, but it didn't have the complexity or the acidic firmness to stand up to the food.
Like virtually every centerpiece entrée at Il Solé, the rosemary-grilled lamb tenderloin was superb: juicy, sweet, and tender, with a conspicuous insinuation of gaminess. Under the pieces of meat was a gratin of sliced purple Peruvian and Yukon gold potatoes indulged with an ooze of rich cream and Taleggio cheese surrounded by a crisp carpet of sautéed Swiss chard. A splash of bing cherry demi-glace deftly played off the lamb sweetness.
But the chosen wine, a 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, didn't have the complexity or agile girth to do justice to the deft flavor composition of the dish. Its range of black fruit and smoky flavors was simply too shallow, falling off quickly on the finish. It's odd that with Il Solé's broad list of meticulously selected wines, the tasting menu pairings didn't come off with more verve and daring.
Yet if these wines didn't have the generosity or the soul to stand up to the mostly fine cuisine, the Mayacamas Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc proved the exception: rich, racy, unctuous. Far more interesting than the dessert of lemon polenta cake covered with thin nectarine slices with which the wine was paired. The cake was dry, crumbly, and bland.
A better dessert is the cheesecake ($6) pocked with fat, juicy blackberries. It's fluffy and silky with a smooth, rich caramel sauce dribbled on the outside. The coffee here is delicious too -- even late at night, when pots are often left to simmer the brew into sewage.
The service here is gracious and attentive, although it's difficult to hear the server yap over the grunge.
The fundamentals at Il Solé are sound -- more than sound. It's the edges that need the work before it's ripe for a perfect moment. I'll be holding my breath.