Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Upcoming Specials and Our trip to Florida Part II

We have lots of exciting specials coming soon, with several focused on authentic traditional Cuban dishes. Two of these are two of my all time favorites; Tasajo and Boliche.

Tuti's godmother Lilia (We call her Gia) is an awesome cook and makes some of the best Cuban food I've ever had, she is one of the main reasons I love the cuisine to begin with. She makes what we loosely refer to as "Tasajo" though it might be called "Aporreado de Tasajo" which technically means "Tasajo stew" though the way she prepares it is really nothing like a stew, or maybe "Tasajo Criollo." Though it is hard to say because like all Cuban dishes everyone has their own style of making it. Tasajo is a dry cured beef, imported from Uruguay. My understanding is that it originally was made from horse meat, though not to worry, it is only made with beef and is USDA inspected these days. It is quite expensive and has very limited availabity.

A picture of Tasajo with side dishes:

I LOVE this dish. I can eat it and eat it and eat it until I hurt. Then do it again the very next meal. Until it is gone. I have been wanting to share this dish at the restaurant for a very long time, but there was just one problem - no one knows how to make it. Except Gia! So, when I was in Miami I took the chance to have a conversation with her (translated through my mother in law of course as I am only ordering-at-the-Cuban-bakery fluent in Spanish) and she told me her general recipe and technique for cooking it. I say general recipe because Gia is 90 something years old and does most things from memory. Still at her age she will not get out of the kitchen! It is actually a fairly simple dish in terms of ingredients but the transformation and the flavor yielded are unique. To sum it up, the beef ends up shredded with a unique texture, has a red appearance and is complimented by the texture of the sauteed peppers and onions and tomato sauce in it. It is a slightly salty dish as it is made from cured dry beef, and so it is complimented perfectly by fluffy white rice, she usually serves it with black beans, thogh I don't need anything with this dish but a nice, toasty hunk of Cuban bread slathered with butter. Boy am I hungry just thinking about it! I am planning on making this dish for Friday and Saturday's special (provided there is enough for two days, depending on demand) and we will also be serving Chef Jeff's delicious Gazpacho soup with serves as a perfect appetizer to this meal. The Gazpacho will be made with tomatoes from our garden and will be packed with flavor. We sold out last time he made it, so I am sure you will love it! I hope you will come try the Tasajo, it will be a unique culinary experience. I do not know when you will get the chance to try it again, if ever!

Another favorite dish of mine is Boliche, also called Carne Asada, which is not the Carne Asada you get in your taco at Taco Bell. It is basically Cuban pot roast, and is, without a doubt one of the most flavorful preparations of beef anywhere, and if I can make it just like Gia does, will be something we make on a more regular basis at the restaurant. The roast is first marinated in spices then is stuffed with ham, olives and roasted red peppers (sometimes carrots)then cooked in its own juices on low heat for hours, sliced, and covered in a sauce made from the drippings and spices. The concentration of flavor is - ah well, I really can't describe it. I can only tell you once you try it you'll be hooked. I was. I am planning on making this dish for next Friday and Saturday's special. Again, I hope everyone can come out and try this wonderful, traditional Cuban dish, as made by our inspiration, Gia.

A picture of Boliche, ours will be slightly different, each is stuffed a little different. This one does not have the sauce on it:

I also brought back from Miami Cuban crackers. These crackers have a unique texture and we will be doing an appetizer with them in the near future. They will likely be served with fresh Chevre from Integration Acres and a Guava jam. Traditionally, cream cheese is spread on the crackers and then a slice of guava paste is placed on top. This will be our spin on that.


Veggies with Sol

How many restaurants do you know of that grow, harvest and process their own organic veggies and deliver them directly to your table in the form of delicious salads, salsas and soups? Sol does! Check out these pics of our awesome, super flavorful, pesticide and insecticide-free veggies.

We weren't sure how this crop would turn out given the dry summer we had, but I feel I've developed what is a pretty good method for producing (at least) tomatoes. I plan on expanding production next year to provide even more of our fresh veggies including squash, strawberries, lettuces, cabbage, etc. There was only so much time this year as we were of course concentrating on getting the restaurant itself going, but each year I expect we will be able to expand production. This year I concentrated on tomatoes as we use a ton of those (maybe literally) for our fresh fire-roasted salsa, salads and for (when Chef Jeff makes it), our delicious Gazpacho soup. Coming soon as a special, by the way, read the blog about our upcoming specials for more about that.

To grow these vegetables chemical free, I start with a technique I picked up from the U-pick fields we used to go to when we lived in Miami. They mound the rows, cover them with plastic and plant the strawberries and tomatoes. There is no weeding. I also do not water the plants all summer either. Only when the plants are put in the ground and that's it. They are pretty much on their own from April until September. I feel like letting the plants grow naturally instead of babying them allows them to develop stronger roots, leading to a healthier plant better drought and pest resistance, etc. I only stake and reinforce the plants as they get larger. This year has been extra hard to keep the plants upright because they have grown SO large. This year I used compost from Integration Acres. Chris Chmiel brought over two truckloads and I am not sure if it was the compost or not, but I have never have tomato plants with such a high yield of fruit, especially considering the dry summer.

So here they are, extremely flavorful, colorful, and sweet tomatoes, with more flavor than you will ever find from anything store bought. I expect we will be able to supply ourselves almost entirely through the end of September if we are lucky, so hopefully you will come in and experience the difference of locally, organically grown direct to restaurant produce before the season is over!

Our Trip to Florida Part I

Our family goes on a week long vacation once a year to Ft. Myers Beach, FL. Tuti has been going since she was a baby with her family and after we met I started going with her too. We have a timeshare the same week every year, and as the extended family has expanded, we now have 4 of fifteen units in the building. So, after forty years, and with around twenty family members present, it is safe to say that this is as much a tradition as it is a vacaton. We are sort of like the sea turtles that come back there every year around the same time to lay their eggs; it is innate, it is instinct, it must be done. However, this year we were faced with a predicament, one named Sol. Our restaurant. How could we leave our fledgling business unattended for over a week? COULD we leave it unattended, and WHAT would happen?

The answer was YES. Of course we could. We have an excellent staff, it is one of the keys to our success and what allows us to set ourselves apart as a dining establishment. Our staff is more than employees,they believe in and enjoy what they do and understand the goal we have in mind. The experience must be exceptional. The food, the environment, the service. More responsibility was doled out and when we came back, the restaurant remained. Thank you staff!

This year we were especially anxious to get to the beach, because a "renourishment" program was set in place last year to combat the erosion that has taken place over the years. How big would the beach be? How far would we have to go to drag or chairs and coolers and other necessities near the water's edge? The beach had eroded to only a few feet from the volleyball net. They were working on this project as we were there last year; a barge pumped sand from out on the distant horizon to the water line and an excavator worked the sand into place to form the new beach. Each day we could see the beach approach several noticeable feet closer to in front of our building. They were nearly to in front when we left. There is a picture hanging in Sol of the excavator at sunset. It was one of the most interesting things to see happen, and had the stunning backdrop of a perfect Gulf Coast sunset. I couldn't help but snap dozens of shots trying to capture the scene.

The reactions to the "new" beach were mixed. Of course when you change something you have been used to for years not everyone gets used to it right away. In the process of pumping the sand to the shoreline, many shells were pumped as well. While shelling has been almost nonexistent for many years at Ft Myers, there were now many beautiful shells to look for, albeit mostly smaller ones as the larger ones appeared to have been chewed up in the pumps and were the source of several punctures and cuts on our feet throughout the week. (Some of us figured to wear aqua socks earlier on in the week than others.) Also, the almost always present sting rays seemed to have shyed away this year, though we saw dolphins close by nearly every day.

Thinking back though every year as I do when we go, each has been different. Different animals make themselves seen, the beach is in a different place, we do different activities, the experiences are always slightly different. And yet we look forward to it, whatever it will be, because it is always the same, and it is always there, and we expect it to be that way for another forty years.

While I tried hard to overcome the psychological condition that never fails to inflict me at the end of the week of vacation - that one where I swear I was abducted by aliens and lost a week and then they dropped me back off, or where I fell into some sort of wormhole (both of these because how else to explain the instantaneous passage of a week's time?) I was though, also ready in some ways to come back. I thought about how the vacation was constantly changing, evolving into something different, and yet we always looked forward to it, and I thought about the restaurant and wanted to get back to it, because it too is a constantly changing thing. Evolving, providing new experiences, and the best little bit of this Tropical life I can have in Athens and that I can offer to others. So for it too, I was excited and ready to get to work, to see what had changed when I got back.

But first, I had to go to Miami...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ohio Brew Week Part One

June 22-30th is Ohio Brew Week in Athens, and Sol Restaurant is looking to play an active role this year. We are both new and late to the game, as we have only recently even started serving alcohol at our restaurant, but we have lots of exciting stuff we'd like to do. Below is a summary of the events we are planning so far, we may be able to add additional events as well. These should soon be posted on the Ohio Brew Week website, which you can access here:

Our events so far are as follows:

Saturday June 23th
We will be at the Spicebush Festival at the Dairy Barn, with food featuring both beer and Spicebush berries as ingredients. More details to come on this...

Sunday June 24th
Sunday Brunch 9AM – 3PM. In addition to our wide selection of regular brunch menu items we will be offering our biscuits and beer gravy made with our house made Spanish chorizo, a steak, eggs and beer breakfast, a selection of our beer inspired desserts, and Micheladas and Beermosas. Walkins and reservations welcome.

Monday June 25th
6PM – 10PM. Our award winning chef’s Ribs and Beer Dinner. Walkins and reservations welcome.

Wednesday June 27th
4:30 Formal Tasting: Elevator Brewing Company. Meet elevator representative Jay Taylor and restaurant owner Todd Wilson as you taste 4 beers including: Mogabi Hoppy Wheat, Heiferweizen, Angry Goat Nut Brown, and Dark Horse Lager. History of Cuban cuisine and meal pairings will be discussed. The event is free, sampler cost is $6

Thursday June 28th
7PM-10PM. Night of Desserts. Desserts ranging from the savory to the sweet side, made with beers from Thirsty Dog, Morlein, Jackie O’s and more. Available in full servings or as a dessert sampler paired with a beer sampler.

Even on non-event nights we will be featuring dishes that will pair with, and also that use beer as an ingredient.

We will be featuring and using beers from Elevator, Mt. Carmel, Moerlein, Rivertown, Thirsty Dog, and of course, Athens' own Jackie O's.

Check back here and on ours and Brew Week's website for up to date info. We will post more details about the food we will be featuring as we get closer to the event.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sure I'm the owner, but...

Last night Tuti and I made reservations at Sol. Why, you might ask, would we go to our OWN restaurant for a date night when we could go anywhere else? Hmm...that is a good question and one which I will answer shortly.

Jeff, our Chef, Has been working on a special, and we were very curious to try it out. At first glance, it seemed interesting, but I was not sold. I DID want something different though, different from the regular menu. Even when the food is great, everyone, even owners like to try different things sometimes. The special ended up being three courses, each which could be selected individually, but we decided to get all three.

The first course, the appetizer, was Cuban-spiced crab cakes. I will start by saying that I have never been big on any seafood but fish. But these, wow, they really were great. The spices in them were just right, and they had a light crispness to them on the outside that contrasted the sweet and tender Maryland Blue crabmeat inside. Two of them were placed in the center of a very nice sun made of mango aioli sauce that was just enough to go with the crab cake, but nearly left you wanting for more.

It was very, very good. We had mojitos to start with our appetizer, one traditional and one guava mojito. Both were excellent. The fresh lime and mint took these drinks to a level beyond what you'd get at an average bar.

The second course, the entree, was Harina. This is a sort of a Cuban grits. A course corn meal, it was cooked with Snowville Creamery heavy cream and plated with a Tasso Ham Cream Sauce with fresh white shoepeg corn.

Jeff made the ham. As in cured it, spiced it...made it from scratch from a fresh piece of pork. The Harina was served with pan seared shrimp, but really the Harina and sauce were the star of the plate. Creamy and flavorful, the bits of ham perfectly seasoned and just making the dish. I sipped some Ron Zacapa rum as I ate my entree. Smooth and dark, it is a very nice rum.

The biggest surprise for me, and some other tables confirmed the same experience was the crepes. Uhm, I was thinking this might be like a fruit stuffed pancake with a guava syrup. Can I say that in a word this dessert was...phenomenal. The Crepes were soft, and lightly sweet with just the perfect crispiness on the edges. The filling started with a base of our guava cream cheese and added strawberries to the mix. A guava mojito sauce was drizzled over top and a finely diced strawberry placed in the middle. We paired the dessert with a glass of Ecco Domani Moscado, a dessert wine that complimented the crepes nicely.

In short, this dessert really surprised, as did all the courses, and honestly was one of the most enjoyable meals I've had at Sol, and for sure in Athens. I really wish everyone had the opportunity to come try the food, and have the same experience that I and many other people had. It was just great. And when I was there, I didn't feel like an owner, I just felt like I was somewhere special, and that's what we want everyone to experience. I talked to a table next to me about how good everything was and they joked that sure, I was biased, but really, I wasn't. My experience at Sol that night was as new and unique as theirs, because I had never had this food either.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Smells of Sol

Driving down Court Street the other day with the windows down in the car, I commented to Tuti what a wonderful smell that was that was filling the street, and I wondered what it was.

"That's our black beans cooking." she said.
"Yeah, it is."

I've smelled our food cooking before, various things, sometimes the black beans, sometimes the Guava Honey BBQ sauce, it usually does flow into the alley from the vents in the kitchen, but I was really surprised how far it reached that day. All the way into the street, detectable even inside the car as you drove through uptown.

There are several stages of smell associated with the cooking of black beans, each is a unique and enjoyable experience. First comes the smells from the fresh veggies that must be chopped, there is a bit of sting from the onion, a mild peppery freshness from the green bell peppers. These are then sauteed in olive oil with garlic, this creates the "sofrito" the base for many Cuban dishes. To this is added white wine, cumin, paprika, oregano and salt and our locally sourced Shagbark black turtle beans. It is then that the magic begins. Without fail, the aroma of black beans begins to flow into the alley. Our signage is not ready yet, but should be ready for installation no later than next week, at which point we will hopefully start to get acknowledged credit for the source of good smells. After only a few short minutes, the spices begin to meld with the wine and sofrito, the beans soften and begin to release their starches, some eventually turning into sugar, giving a slightly sweet, almost banana-like quality to the overall uniquely Cuban aroma being generated. Enjoying these smells, I can sometimes imagine myself sitting near the ocean in Havana, A traditional meal of black beans and rice with maybe pork or some other main course in front of me, a gentle tropical breeze swirling the elements of cuisine and salt ocean air together for an experience like no other.

We only have an alley, and there's no ocean, but the wonderful aroma is here. Come to Sol, linger outside a bit even before coming in if you like, then be transported. To Havana. Maybe to Little Havana. But you will definitely feel like you are somewhere else. And that's part of the magic of Sol.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Customer Feedback - Specifics

My last post was of a more general nature, but I'd like to get into some more specifics. I mentioned feedback from customers. For the most part, this has been extremely positive, though there has been negative as well, and I want to talk about samples of both.

Obviously, no restaurant can produce food that can make everyone happy, there are too many palettes out there, and as I have learned from our short time in business, there are a few people out there that NO ONE can make happy, in fact, it seems to me their only happiness seems to come from making others the opposite. That's too bad, and I really can't help those kind of people, though I do my best trying. I have had only a few customers who do not fit into this category of "unpleasable" but HAVE complained about various items, to food not being quite hot enough to the music being a bit loud, or service not quick enough, etc, but they are always polite, and gracious, and understanding. I have even had (especially when we first opened) customers who told me to seat other parties who were not ahead of them because they could see us struggling to keep up, and our limited number and arrangement of tables, and overall very understanding about wait times (which we have drastically reduced.) I can't tell you how nice those kinds of things are to see and to know that for some people, it's really about that - people. Selfless acts can be small and have a big impact. More of those, and the world would definitely be a better place.

On the other hand, this small population of people who seek to make other people miserable. It is very hard to deal with. I have had people tell me how horrible their experience was or the food terrible (when a table next to them with the identical dish has praised it up and down without solicitation.) Interestingly enough, often these same tables that have blasted the quality of the food end up taking their leftovers home. I have also had people use the word "inedible" for something as refined and exotic as our Malanga soup, something we see consistently come back with bowls all but licked. Personally, malanga is not my favorite root vegetable, but I tried the soup and really liked it. I understand if you have a different palette than someone else, but I really feel the word "inedible" is taking it a bit far. Simply ask for something else. We will gladly accomodate that request.

Then, as I have recently discovered, there is the small population of people that not only want to make you miserable, they also only have the guts to do it from behind a computer. I really do not understand their motivation. As an example, on Urban Spoon our food was recently described as bland, both the waitresses and the sophistication of the entire Athens populatation insulted, etc. We are pretty good about keeping an eye on all of our customers. I know for a fact this particular customer did not complain while he was in the restaurant, either about the food or service, but simply waited until he had exited to blast us. How do you respond to that? You don't. And I don't need to. It has nothing to do with the success of Sol. It's in the real world, not the cyberworld where that success takes place. Where we talk to the customers who are praising what we do, watching them laugh, have a good time, enjoy the music, even breaking out in impromptu salsa dancing during their visit.

Anyhow, enough about the negative responses, I'd like to talk about some of the positive responses. First off, we have had many Hispanics from various countries (Argentina, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, etc, and of course Cuba) come to our restaurant. Consistently we have received praise for the authenticity and flavors of the cuisine. I mention this first, because, it helps us to know we are on target with how the food is supposed to really be. In other words, its being eaten by the people who know what it is supposed to REALLY taste like. If it was wrong, they’d know. We could be making food that tastes great, but has no authenticity, and that authenticity is important to us. Locals have praised it as well, and so now we know we can make it authentic AND they'll like it too.

A young woman was in the other night with one of my regular customers, and he told me she wanted to talk to me about something. It was the Sol steak. She said she loved it and that it was one of the best steaks that she'd had, and that every bite was edible and delicious. I had a short discussion with her about how we'd met with suppliers and cooked and eaten boxes of steaks to make sure we'd have the best product out there. I understand the disappointment in getting a steak that is not only inconsistent, or improperly cooked, but that you end up having to cut off 1/3 of it and set it to the side of your plate. It's not satisfying to only eat 2/3 of something nor is it appetizing to have to look at the remaining 1/3 all discombobulated on your plate. We KNOW this and we approach everything based on our own experience, and how WE would like it to be. So that specific feedback was very good. It is EXACTLY what we are aiming for.

Several people have stopped by the kitchen and told us how good everything was, or asked to talk to Tuti on her nights in the kitchen, when they see that she has had a chance to take a break in the dining room.

We have received lots of compliments on the dining room, and what we’ve done with the space. People share their experiences in the Keys, Cuba, etc, and understand exactly the feel we were going for. Again, all of this confirmation from customers makes us feel very good, and lets us know our vision for the food, the environment and the service are all being executed as we had hoped. It is always fun to hear about how a customer has found us and the surprise they have when they open a door in an alleyway and find this almost secret place. While I enjoy hearing about their surprise (and I often actually see it on their faces when they open the door, unsure they are even in the right place) I am ok if the “secret” gets out. The more people that know the better!

Of course, as I recently mentioned in a response to an online review, we are not resting on our laurels. We are constantly reviewing everything we do, asking for customer feedback, and striving to correct mistakes, and achieve a very high level in everything we do.

If you’ve come to Sol already, and had a good experience, we’d love to hear about it, Urban Spoon is a good place, also our Facebook page, or even here on the blog. While we do talk to as many people as possible, we do not get the chance to talk to everyone, and we like to hear your comments. It’s also been my experience that most people only comment on sites like Urban Spoon when they want to express something negative, and I’d like to see that balanced out by the positive feedback I get in the actual dining environment. While I know most everyone is having a good time, and I have no worries regarding that, it would be nice for out of towners to find us online and not be influenced by unbalanced online reviews that do not accurately portray the overall experience most people are having.

I will continue to share customer comments here, and again, we appreciate so much everyone’s patronage of our restaurant and really enjoy seeing you all have a good time. That’s what it’s all about!