Sole Searching

The role of an ideal meal in the midst of an economy that isn't

In these uneasy economic times, most of us aren't splurging on outstanding meals as often as we might have in the past. On the occasion that we actually decide to go all out, throw caution and money to the wind, and enjoy ourselves, it seems like expectations tend to be pretty high. I was mulling over the effects of this change when I visited Sole Restaurant and Raw Bar, which is located downtown inside the Westin Hotel. From the moment we arrived until we left a couple of hours later, dinner at Sole was the kind of experience that's heaven to relive. >>>

Operated by owners of East Memphis' Interim, Sole is an inviting spot with the same sort of relaxed, low-key elegance. Chef Matthew Crone is at the helm, and he is busy introducing some of the most inventive food to be found in Memphis. Why I enjoyed my visits to Sole so much is simple: everything about the restaurant's atmosphere, presentation, and service revolves around guests feeling cosseted.

Sole offers complimentary valet service, a bonus that helped us focus on anticipating our meal rather than worrying about finding a decent parking spot. Out of curiosity, I chose to get to Sole through the Westin lobby, which has a minimalist feel with its low, spiky flower arrangements and 1950s modern lighting. The hushed tone of the lobby was livened up by a piano player in Sole's bar area, and cool blue tones of light splashed across the dark wood of the table and banquettes. So take the clean, modern aesthetic of the lobby and plunge it into a neon-tinged ocean, and that's how it felt to walk into Sole for dinner.

I noticed plenty of stellar choices for wine by the glass at around $10, and I settled on a 2006 Kunde zinfandel. From the beginning, I also appreciated the expert flourishes of our server – presenting the wine prettily in a mini-decanter and providing a generous pour, supplying us right away with warm, crusty sourdough bread laced with rosemary, and responding to our questions in a succinct and confident manner.

Sole's appetizer menu is divided into "cold" and "warm." Craving comfort on a below-freezing night, we chose from the "warm" section. The calamari was fried and served with a chilled red-pepper coulis. Maybe it was my own wishful thinking, but I took "pecan-dusted" to mean, say, "encrusted," or maybe even "sprinkled" with ground nuts, but the dish appeared on our table just plain "fried," as calamari usually is. Not oily or heavy, though, it really was done right – light, crisp, and steaming hot. We also tried the buttery gnocchi, the creamiest and smoothest I have ever tasted. It featured flecks of sage, a hint of lemon, grana padana, and a perfectly pan-fried exterior. The sweet corn bisque also impressed us. Topped with chive foam, it captured the flavor of the just-shucked sweet summer corn. A few crab fritters submerged in the soup were a meaty, savory take on the usual croutons.

Expect an almost over-the-top richness when it comes to many of the offerings at Sole. We definitely enjoyed that, but felt like we needed a few green things after those decadent appetizers, so we opted for the chef's selection of seasonal vegetables along with jumbo shrimp and grits as our entrée. Garlicky spinach and vidalia onions were welcome additions to the dish. Sole also features local produce as often as possible, and I was pleased to see on the menu that the grits were from Delta Grind. Collard greens, sweet potato purée, and Brussels sprouts rounded out our dinner.

Mainstays such as beef tenderloin, rib eye, and a Neola Farms cheeseburger sounded great, too, but I wanted to stick with seafood for the evening since that's what Sole seems to be all about. Grouper, salmon, scallops, and of course, sole are also featured on the dinner menu. The preparation and balance of the shrimp and grits underlined the idea that seafood is the star at Sole.

Dessert was just as balanced and thoughtfully prepared as all of the other items we ordered. The standout was the praline panna cotta. Decorated with a wafer cookie, sugared pecans, and a swish of vanilla caramel sauce, this creative interpretation of the typical plain panna cotta was a knockout dessert with hints of mocha and singed sugar. We left Sole feeling like our experience was more than worth the hundred dollars we spent.

Our Saturday afternoon lunch was casual compared to dinner. The same focused, attentive service was apparent, but the attention to detail when it came to the food was not. Luckily, though, our server quickly corrected one major issue and checked in to ask what we thought about each dish.

To begin, we selected pan-seared crab cakes, and we loved the extra additions that arrived with them. Star-shaped dollops of citrusy avocado mousse and a sweet and vinegary tomato-onion salsa paired nicely with the peppery crab cakes.

Next, two salads were a bit disappointing due to the same issue: A lighter hand was needed. The baby arugula salad was weighed down by a great deal of blue cheese dressing, but the candied hazelnuts strewn about it were great; they reminded us of a sophisticated version of kettle corn. Overall, we just sort of picked at this salad, and though our server did remark that it was one of her favorites, she also apologized for it not really being what we expected. One of our entrées, the lobster and shrimp salad, was striking on the plate with oversized leaves of grilled romaine and a spot-on mango coulis. But it was dressed so heavily that we used it as a dip for the toast points that were provided; this worked better than treating it as a typical entrée salad.

The traditional po' boy was right on target, and my companion thought that the oysters featured in this sandwich were as fresh and complex as those she's sampled straight off either coast. Crispy and salty, this sandwich highlighted that perfect earthy, oceany flavor of fresh oysters, and the accompanying house-cut fries rivaled the best in town.

Unfortunately, our dessert — banana bread pudding — came to the table cold. After a quick and honest explanation, our server made sure another one was warmed properly and then wrapped it up in addition to including some extra vanilla bean gelato for us to take home. Reheated to the proper temperature later that afternoon, it completely redeemed itself with hints of cinnamon and cream playing off the mellowness of the sugary crushed bananas.

I decided to stop by Sole once more and try a couple of appetizers — I especially wanted to have something from the raw bar, which features oysters and tuna. I chose the tuna tartare, which was gorgeous on the plate. Encircled by polka dots of balsamic vinegar and green verjus, the cubed bites of the raw tuna were drizzled with truffle oil and decorated with black truffle shavings along with microgreens and what tasted like fried wonton strips. We also had to check out the shrimp lollipops, adorable spheres of fried jumbo shrimp placed on whittled sugarcane sticks. Both of these appetizers showcased Chef Crone's creativity and were fun for us to share and discuss.

From the valet service and the hostess' kind greeting, to the staff's knowledge of and excitement about Sole's menu, we felt completely at ease. Luckily, Sole offers a great deal of comfort to visitors in the midst of an economy that's sorely missing it.

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