Friday, 28 December 2012

Where to Eat in Athens, Ohio: "Sol" Food

Much ado is always made of holiday leftovers--the sandwiches, the casseroles, the stews, and all the other delicious things you can make with the bits and pieces not eaten at the main meal. Those are all well and good, but after a while you tire of poking through the crowded refrigerator, cobbling together unusual and unconventional collections of meats and starches and veggies, and trying to figure out how long you need to leave your plate in the microwave to ensure that you won't bite in to a surprise cold patch. When you have reached this phase of culinary unrest, it is time to go out to eat.

Our choice of restaurant last night was one of Athens, Ohio's (relatively) more recent additions: Sol, which serves "Cuban fusion cuisine." Sol first started serving food at the beginning of 2012. Sadly, they did not win the Food Network contest that would have gotten them both publicity and advice/assistance from a seasoned restauranteur, but business seems good all the same. This is a particularly big compliment at this time of year, when Athens becomes a ghost town while all of the university students are home for the holidays. On top of this, Sol is tucked away down a cobbled and rarely-used alleyway, and must therefore be deliberately sought out. We were only one of many families visiting the restaurant last night, which shows just how highly regarded the place is.

(Our first round of drinks--mojitos, a pina colada, and a microbrewed beer.)

Before we went for our meal, my mother warned that while the food is delicious, the service is sometimes a bit slow. Indeed, we had to wait a very long time for our drinks and our main course; however, to smooth our ruffled feathers, our waitress brought over a free round of cocktails and also made sure to get our appetizer out as quickly as possible. We were later visited by the chef/proprietor, who apologized for the delay and explained that all their waitstaff were either sick or away on holiday.

(The Sol Crostini sampler, featuring the Cuban, Ropa, and La Italiana varieties of crostini.)

The crostinis were quite tasty, though not quite as hot as I would have liked. I tend to think of crostinis as being quite crunchy, but these were made from bread that had merely been toasted. I actually liked these  better than the "normal" version, since the softness made the crostinis much easier to eat. The "shredded seasoned beef" on the Ropa crostini was tender and succulent, and the spiciness of its marinade paired well with the house avocado spread.

Salads can be pretty boring, but Sol has some unique dressings to jazz up their greens. We were given three options, but I only remember the two that were ordered at our table--a guava-Dijon mustard vinaigrette, and a super-garlicky chimichurri dressing. One of their specialty salads comes with a pineapple dressing that also grabbed my interest.

I was able to taste the chimichurri dressing during my main course--a salad with seared flat iron steak, hard-boiled egg, bacon, and perfectly ripe grape tomatoes (in the middle of winter!). It was delicious, but unfortunately I could only eat about one third of it; that was my punishment for thinking I am grown-up enough to stomach a non-virgin pina colada without feeling nauseous.

 (My mother's "traditional" steak salad.)

My mother and I both ordered the steak salad, though I requested a bit of rice on the side of mine. I am not sure why, but I was really having a craving for some rice, and it seemed like the perfect thing to balance out all that greenery. The waitress was very accommodating of my request, and the rice was cooked quite nicely (which for some reason is often not the case at restaurants).

(My riced-up steak salad.)

The menfolk opted to have even meatier dishes. My father ordered the guava-glazed baby back ribs, which came with a side of homemade coleslaw and a loaded baked potato:

One of the things I like about "ethnic restaurants" (whatever that really means) in the US is how they frequently take quintessentially American dishes and then use certain ingredients--often spices--to put a new spin on them. I suppose that is really the essence of cooking in general (after all, chefs can only work with a finite number of ingredients), but it is something that is particularly noticeable here in our melting pot country; it's also a process that is on prominent display in parts of Great Britain. Maybe I'm being melodramatic, but I think that these variants are a great way to quickly get a taste of the spirit of other cultures--literally!

The final dish at our table was the Sol steak with chimichurri; this came with Shagbark Adzuki beans and white rice. Not that there was anything wrong with any of the other meals, but this was the one plate that had nothing left on it at the end of the night, so obviously it was very well executed. We had to request some of the restaurant's eco-friendly doggie bags so that we could take home the leftovers. (I'm sure you can appreciate the irony of this given what I said about leftovers just a few paragraphs ago.)

Sadly, after indulging in both crostinis and multiple rounds of drinks before our main courses, we had no room left over for dessert. If we had, I would have sampled the Key lime cheesecake or perhaps even the wonderfully named triple-chocolate throwdown. Those will just have to wait until my next visit.

Sol is located at 33 North Court Street, Athens, Ohio, 45701.

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