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To the Tapas

At Solero, small things add up to quite a lot

So far, much of the talk about the renaissance of downtown has been a lot more talk than renaissance, but in one area, at least -- food -- there's no denying that central Houston has become a much more pleasant place in recent months. Joining with stalwarts such as Treebeard's, Charley's 517 and the Lancaster Grill have been the Kim Son on Market Square, the Palace Cafe -- and now what is an enchanting addition to the new lot, Solero.

If a restaurant can be measured by its coolness quotient, then Solero would be a ten. The location doesn't hurt: on Prairie right behind the Rice Hotel, in a shotgun building dating back to 1882 that used to house the Carter and Cooley deli prior to its move to the Heights. Though the area presently appears a little bleak -- or like the center of an urban renewal project -- the owners of Solero are obviously looking to the future, when the Rice becomes pricey condos and the buildings across the way lose their construction barriers. Even now, for those who know how to find it, it's an easy walk from the likes of the Lyric Center, Jones Hall, the Wortham and the Alley. The four owners, Sharon Haynes, John Hooks, Chuck Wilson (an ex-manager of 8.0) and chef Arturo Boada (most recently the chef at Cabo's) have spent considerable effort to create an up-to-date environment. A 30-foot ceiling, unfinished walls with visible brick, original wood flooring, a beige color scheme, subdued lighting and a magnificent birch-wood bar help create the pleasing effect.

What the quartet decided to place in this space is something new to Houston: a tapas bar. Believing that to many in town the word "tapas" has no meaning -- or else would be mistaken for a word that does have meaning in Houston, "topless" -- the owners pass out a little sheet distinguishing between the Spanish tradition of small items of food served with drinks and the Texas tradition of small items of clothing taken off with drinks. (Actually, I thought the sheet, with its cute comments about "tapas, not topless," was a bit much. Until, that is, I mentioned the place to three different folks who thought I was talking about the buffet at Rick's.)

Actually, tapas began as small portions of hot or cold food served in Spanish bars as something on the order of a happy hour snack. In Spanish, the word tapar means to cover, and the first tapas were slices of bread placed on top of glasses of wine or sherry to keep out the flies and unwanted debris. The bread soon gave way to ham, sausage, cheese and other salty delicacies as the tavern owners discovered that these morsels spurred beverage sales. Eventually, this morphed into the notion of a full meal made from a selection of appetizers crowded together on the table. That raises the question of whether you can satisfy an American appetite with a series of snacks. Judging from my experiences at Solero, the answer is yes. (Of course, it helps that larger portions, or racions, of each tapas item are available.)

Tapas are generally made with simple ingredients -- serrano ham, not unlike prosciutto; manchego cheese, a somewhat salty, hard cheese; black and green olives, lots of olive oil and garlic -- but they can also be any small tidbits that the chef combines. While soups may not be offered in most tapas bars in Spain, at Solero there are two that are both excellent starters. The white bean and ham soup is laden with beans, corn and carrot and tomato pieces and boasts a distinct smoky ham flavor. Even better is the roasted red bell pepper soup, which is dense, rich and creamy with a nicely rounded flavor. A topping of thin, crispy tortilla strips adds another notable dimension.

Another kind of tortilla is served here, the Spanish tortilla, this one a kind of cold omelet made with eggs, potatoes and onions. The dish looks a bit like a quiche, and is presented in a similar pie-wedge serving. The sample I tried had the eggs cooked a little too long, since they formed a brown lace-like crust that covered the exterior. It also lacked a definitive flavor, which might be expected from something made largely from large potato pieces but which actually isn't a prerequisite for this dish.

A cold dish of marinated mushrooms had perhaps been sitting in an olive oil bath a little too long, since they were soft and lifeless. They also suffered from being a touch too vinegary. The mussels Solero, though, had no such problem; this is worthy of the status of a signature dish. A generous portion of in-shell mussels is sauteed in a spicy marinara sauce that brings a sudden burst of flavor. Despite being a touch salty, the abundant sauce is perfect for dipping your bread in. (The Spanish hate to see a sauce go to waste, so they use their bread to sop up any that remains. There's even an idiom in Spanish, hacer una barca, that means "to make a boat" of your bread, which you then literally sail around your plate, taking on the sauce.)

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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