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Wednesday, May 22 2002
What do you have to do to get noticed in this town? Two weeks ago I sat in an empty restaurant eating three courses of opulent, marvelously conceived, and not altogether expensive food while lesser, pricier places all over the city were packing them in. Of course, location is a factor -- I was downtown, not exactly a weeknight hot spot -- as are the economy and the May sweeps, but still and all it's puzzling that a place with one of the nation's top 10 pastry chefs whipping up confections on the premises should have most of its business centered around the bar.

Soléa opened four months ago under the aegis of chef/owner Bruno Feldeisen, a skilled and inventive veteran of Monaco's Hôtel de Paris, New York's Four Seasons, and Washington's Senses Bakery and Restaurant, the Citizen Cake of D.C. His new place is located inside the Orchard Hotel, a posh little boutique a couple blocks from Union Square. Although the off-the-beaten-track locale has so far kept the restaurant's attendance to a minimum, it's also given the place a hideaway ambience conducive to fine dining and sumptuous quietude.

Just off the hotel lobby, past a rather hypnotic sheet-water fountain, is a smart, cozy bar where hotel guests and curious passers-by gather for repose, chitchat, and attentively constructed cocktails. The house Lemon Drop, for instance, is made up of freshly squeezed lemon juice muddled with sugar, a dollop of Pallini Limoncello liqueur, and a sizable slug of vodka, shaken and strained into a deco-futuristic martini glass. Another attractive aspect of the bar is its snack menu, an upscale example of the genre featuring tuna tartare with guacamole, potato fritters with goat cheese, and lamb sausage with arugula. The adjacent dining room is starkly elegant in earth tones of peach, tan, and red accented with blond-wood wine cabinets and dazzling floral bouquets. Napery and silver glow under the setting sunlight pouring in through the high arched windows that cover one wall.

Chef Feldeisen and his chef de cuisine, Colin Kaiser, have created a menu in which haute cuisine ingredients like foie gras and lobster combine with traditional American foodstuffs like corn bread, sweet potatoes, and soft-shell crab into dishes as luxurious -- and as richly satisfying -- as the setting and the service. Texas prairie quail, for instance, is carefully roasted to best preserve its firm flesh and delicate taste; a tangy ragout of sweet potatoes, walnuts, and Merguez sausage complements the bird's subtle flavor while evoking the lively essence of French fusion. Another appetizer, soft-shell crab, is coated with cornmeal, fried until crisp, accented with basil and ginger, and served with a dipping sauce of plum and fennel. The result is juicy, crunchy, sweet, and savory all at once. Best of the appetizers is the seared foie gras, plump, moist, and buttery in a jus of golden raisins, with a tiny muffin of cornmeal and sweet onion providing unexpected textural contrast.

The main courses are equally complex and mostly successful. A thick fillet of Alaskan halibut is crusted with salt and cooked until tender and ethereal; smoky bacon, tart green apple, fragrant leeks, and dark brown butter accent but don't overpower its gossamer nature. The pan-roasted chicken breast is luscious and meaty, and the blue lake green beans, baby corn, and shiitake mushrooms that accompany it are crisp and fresh. Unfortunately, a violet mustard sage broth that isn't as exciting as it sounds overwhelms the dish. Opt instead for the Australian rack of lamb, the best dish on the menu. The meat is perfectly pink and succulent, inspiring so much gustatory pleasure that it would be a triumph all on its own. Gilding the lily in delicious fashion, however, are a hint of white truffle honey on the crackling skin, a jus of whole cloves and sherry -- a strikingly good substitution for the standard mint jelly -- and, on the side, a ragout of puréed celery root mixed with just enough foie gras to give it an unexpectedly creamy feel.

There are a few special moments that make life worth living: your wedding day; the birth of your first child; the waiter asking, "Would you like to look at the dessert menu?" Chef Feldeisen began his career as a chocolatier under the legendary Alain Ducasse, was the pastry chef at the Four Seasons for four years, and made Chocolatier magazine's Top Ten Pastry Chefs listing two years running, so it's not surprising that his dessert menu is one damnably delicious thing after another. Soléa's banana cream pie takes the basic concept behind this great American dish and transcends it, proffering a silken, banana-studded crème brûlée in a bird's nest of crackly phyllo and accompanying it with a tiny scoop of rich, earthy chocolate sorbet. The miniature lemon tart employs a buttery cookie crust, a wonderfully puckery lemon mousse, and a cloud of marshmallowlike meringue; a scoop of fresh raspberry sorbet provides a tart, icy complement. Cut into the chocolate tart and a pool of warm, fragrant fudge oozes out of its shortbread crust to mingle with the orange reduction sauce and a globe of thick, stimulating coffee ice cream, a marvelous combination of flavors and textures. Yeah, I want to look at the dessert menu.

The wine list, meanwhile, is extensive and well selected, with small-vintner pinots from Oregon, zins from the Napa Valley, aromatic whites from Alsace-Lorraine, and choices from several other stops in between. It's the ideal wine list for Soléa: worldly, thoughtfully composed, elegantly presented, and rich with overlooked possibilities.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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