Restaurant News

First Look at Solea

Solea opened Wednesday night on Shepherd, and although I wasn't there for it, I imagine it to have been a fine, fun affair.

Instead, I was there on Tuesday night for a media preview of the place -- something which I rarely attend anymore. But curiosity won out; I had to get a glance inside the restaurant that had taken seven months to build and had promised in its initial press release to be "a place where the infusion of Houston's vibrant international, multicultural scene meets its Southern roots."

And did I mention that one of its owners -- Amin Safari -- is also a molecular biologist turned full-time flamenco guitarist who's about to release his third CD? Yes, I needed to see what Solea was all about, and soon.

What I found was a completely inviting spot that's less restaurant -- despite the talents of its chef, Jeff Countryman -- and more upscale pub. There are no hostesses at the front door; you can seat yourself anywhere you like, from the horseshoe-shaped bar to the tables in the main dining room, the sequestered lounge area with comfortable banquettes to the red umbrella'd patio. Order at the bar if you like, or a server will come around to take care of you; it's your call here.

The menu is short and sweet, just as I like them: drinks on one side, food on the other. It's heavy on local beers and Texas spirits, with a well-priced happy hour menu in the early evenings. The food is another thing entirely, though.

To call it "global" would be fitting, although I hate that description. It calls to mind jumbled, aimless restaurants with ideas of "fusion" concepts that never quite pan out. The strongest influences on Solea's menu are from Iran and Louisiana, however, and if that's not global, I don't know what is.

Over drinks, co-owner Mani Salahshoor told me that he's comfortable offering a diverse array of foods from different areas of the globe because Houston itself is such a melting pot. "I wouldn't live anywhere else in the world," he admitted. "I've traveled a lot and lived in many other cities. Houston is very underrated."

Safari and Salahshoor are both from Iran, while chef Countryman is from northern Louisiana. The trio has somehow managed to meld these diverse influences into a menu that also touches on Mediterranean (whether Greek, Italian or Spanish) and Southern dishes with a few basics -- such as burgers and salads -- thrown in. Could it be overreaching? Time will tell, although we were all admittedly very impressed with the dishes thrown our way during the media dinner.

Chief among the impressive dishes were Natchitoches meat pies, a Louisiana specialty which Countryman was adamant about adding to the menu. Well-seasoned beef with the "Cajun trinity" of bell pepper, onion and celery is encased in a shell of flaky pastry dough that's not unlike an empanada, the entire affair served over dirty rice that would pass muster in any Cajun joint.

Equally impressive were offerings from the Persian side of the menu: goat cheese-stuffed dates sprinkled with pistachios and rosy pink lamb chops served over Basmati rice speckled with raisins, almonds, carrots and orange zest with fat stalks of grilled asparagus on the side.

However much I enjoyed the entrées, however, I can see people (myself included) flocking to Solea for more reasons than just dinner: Namely, to listen to live music while noshing on light bites at the cozy bar, which made a mean gin martini and an Old Fashioned and served my red wine at a thankfully appropriate temperature. It's the little things.

There's a purpose-built stage in one corner where Safari serenaded the group with flamenco music on Tuesday evening, whirling around the joint with exuberant energy and slapping his wooden guitar with relish as he played. Salahshoor sat smiling quietly, the more understated of the pair, but excited about the show Safari was putting on nevertheless.

"I think this is what the city needs," he said. "You go to Austin and in every single place you can hear amazing music." Salahshoor is eager to cultivate a rotating lineup of artists for Solea's little stage, artists who are as serious as he and Safari are about making a lasting impact with their new restaurant.

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Katharine Shilcutt