Deep in the heart of downtown Minneapolis is a little slice of Spain, cleverly hidden among the bombast of Block E and the towering corporate dominance of Target. This bit of Spanish flavor comes to us courtesy of Solera, the Twin Cities' premier tapas bar and a popular Downtown hotspot with an established chef and a lauded wine list. And instead of spending your hard-earned cash on appetizers at Applebee's, you can take your bored taste buds on a trip to the lush land of Spain just by hopping on the bus.
WHERE: 900 Henepin Ave., Minneapolis
But what exactly are tapas? Tapas, derived from the Spanish word for "lid" or "cover," are appetizer-sized portions ordered together to create a meal. They are eaten early in the evening in Spain as a light pre-dinner meal, as traditional Spanish dinners often begin between 9 and 11 p.m. Their size is always small and they are full of flavor.
Tapas can be comprised of a variety of ingredients, from honey-drizzled veal to goat cheese to scallops "a la plancha" or salmon poached in olive oil. The goal is a maximization of variety in a single sitting. Instead of settling for oversized portions of sickening steak and mashed potatoes, tapas bars allow mixing and matching combinations of chorizo pinchos (bread with a variety of ingredients including fish or stuffed peppers and cured ham pinned on the toothpick from which it gets its name) and hot pepper calamari. Or you can choose a predetermined set of eight tapas guaranteed by the chef to compliment each other.
Solera opened in 2003 and is the brainchild of much-celebrated Minneapolis chef Tim McKee, who also helms D'Amico Cucina and La Belle Vie. It remains popular in our fickle, competitive world of fine dining due to the variety of flavors available, coupled with presentation so tempting you hesitate to devour it. The scallops arc artfully around the crimson Serrano ham, drizzled in coral saffron sauce, while the battered calamari perch daintily on a bed of field greens and tomato aioli (a sauce made of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil). When Solera promises mouth-watering diversity, it delivers in both taste and production.
Another part of Solera's appeal lies in its soothing, deep-blue and silver color palette and its emphasis on intimate dining; there are booths designed solely for two, giving you opportunity to lean in close over a single flickering candle. Lights are dim, atmosphere-enhancing music is piped in an ambient manner, not an overpowering one. The service is quick and friendly, offering suggestions of wine pairings and desert options.
If you're opting to travel in a large pack for a chic birthday fiesta or wedding reception, Solera has you covered. Bragging two additional floors of meeting space and a rooftop patio with umbrellas, Solera can accommodate groups as large as 1,200 people.
Downstairs, a crowd is always gathered at the bar, sampling from the legendary wine list. Many of the wines are imported from Spain; Solera offers a vast selection of sherry that pairs well with the list of Spanish appetizers. Their happy hour offerings are incredible deals, boasting $2 for a glass of sangria or pints of domestic tap beer.
However, it's the tapas that are, rightfully, the center of attention. Your meal is meticulously, beautifully arranged in such a manner that it's hard to believe it costs so little, and the mingling of flavors as you sample your selections is as satisfying as it is visually stimulating.
Though they boast floors of meeting rooms, unless you're planning a major event, Solera is definitely a restaurant built for two, or perhaps a small group. It's fun to share an assortment of tapas to get the full effect of the restaurant. If you want a full meal, skip the tapas and head elsewhere, but if you've got an adventurous palate and have a yen for cuisine a bit out of the ordinary, Solera is your dream spot.
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