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To the Tapas

At Solero, small things add up to quite a lot

Another flavorful dish is the camarones al mojo de ajo. Four large shrimp are sauteed in olive oil and garlic along with some tomatoes and cilantro. While the garlic flavor almost overpowers this dish, the crisp shrimp, dripping in oil, still make themselves known. The fried calamari is a good example of this oft-done dish. A light, golden-brown batter surrounds the calamari, which is served piping-hot with the same marinara sauce used with the mussels. The hot snapper cakes are pan-fried and served with a spicy, pink, roasted pepper sauce. They do not have a particularly fishy taste, and the crunchy, brown exterior helps hold everything marvelously together.

Less successful is the paella. So far, I haven't been able to find a single authentic paella in Houston, and the version served at Solero hasn't changed that. Still, it is a decent attempt. Served for two people and a little pricey at $24 when compared to the rest of the menu, it does contain some expensive ingredients. Its color, though, is too much on the orange side, and it contains too much liquid and too much salt for my liking. The fact that it was ready in less than 15 minutes, rather than the 30 it normally takes to prepare such a dish, suggests that this is more of an assembly process rather than an entree in which all of the ingredients are cooked together and have a chance to fuse their flavors. On the plus side, Solero doesn't try to skimp on the ingredients; its paella contains chunks of chicken and pork, ground beef, Spanish sausage and, of course, the seafood -- mussels and clams in their shells and a good amount of shrimp, all held together by a rice that, unfortunately, isn't the authentic Valencia type of short grain. It wouldn't take much to turn this into a memorable dish, and I'm hoping that it's one the chef at Solero is still tinkering with.

Desserts are seriously understated -- and, as it happens, not listed on the menu. I suspect this is to maintain flexibility, so that the desserts can change with the chef's whim and availability of different items. But even so, coming up with some phrases the waiters could recite would help, because right now, the servers' descriptions of the sweets just don't do them justice. To say that these are among the best desserts I have ever eaten may sound like an exaggeration. It isn't. In a day when most dessert offerings look woefully similar, the offerings here are refreshingly different. The mango mousse is wonderfully smooth, light and airy. Its yellow/ orange color contrasts with the raspberry sauce that's drizzled on top. Visually, it isn't very appealing, appearing as a large blob on the plate. The taste, however, is heavenly -- sweet and slightly tart at the same time, just as a mango should be. In the apple cheesecake, Boada has combined two of America's most popular desserts in a unique way. A graham cracker crust is filled with wafer-thin layers of apple slices that are alternated with layers of the cream cheese filling. Finely ground pecans top off the creation. A smooth, delicious cinnamon cream, served on the side, serves to keep everything moist. Texturally the dish brings together softness, creaminess, crunchiness and smoothness in a way unlike anything I have ever enjoyed.

Pioneering a new food trend is always risky; pioneering a food trend while pioneering a revived downtown is doubly so. Still, I suspect Solero is in it for the long haul. I can only hope it enjoys the rewards of being at the forefront.

Solero, 910 Prairie, 227-2665.

Solero: roasted red bell pepper soup, $2.25; Spanish tortilla, $2.75; marinated mushrooms, $2.75; mussels Solero, $5; camarones al mojo de ajo, $4.75; fried calamari, $3.25; snapper cakes, $3.25; mango mousse, $3.50; apple cheesecake, $4.50.

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