Solaire, Restaurant Review: Chic decor, cool cuisine at Solaire in Hotel Paradox

Solaire, Restaurant Review: Chic decor, cool cuisine at Solaire in Hotel Paradox

SANTA CRUZ >> What’s in a name? Well, Hotel Paradox does a good job of living up to its moniker, mingling modern and rustic — and making it work.

Located on an unremarkable stretch of busy Ocean Street, this radically remodeled former Holiday Inn reveals a surprisingly chic oasis of an interior. The décor of the hotel — and its 100-seat restaurant, Solaire — is a blend of ultra-sleek meets natural with a dash of whimsy, from its striking furniture and eco-based artwork to a scurry of plaster squirrels clinging to the wall. (Honestly, a group of squirrels is called a scurry.)

When Laurie and I visited Solaire for a late lunch last week, our experience started in the hotel’s front lobby, where we were greeted like honored guests by a receptionist behind the amazing front desk: an 18-foot eucalyptus log. In the restaurant, we found that same friendly but professional attitude, first from the hostess and then from our server, Ashley, who was responsive and graciously attentive throughout the meal.

Solaire is one of the few places locally where you can dine poolside, and the setting is gorgeous. But we decided to sit at one of the high-top tables in the lounge area, where we had a view of the turquoise pool as well as the handsome main room. The natural-contemporary theme continued here: Treetop canopies were photo-screened on the angled ceilings of both dining areas, and a rough rock fireplace contrasted with lush sage and cream upholstery.

Ashley appeared at our table at regular intervals, beginning by taking our drink orders for Iced Tea ($2.50) and wine: Tangent Edna Valley Albarino 2013 ($10) and Fortant Pays D’Oc Grenach Rosé 2013 ($8). She also brought warm bread from Watsonville’s Sumono Bakery and crunchy flatbread, accompanied by sea-salt butter, wonderfully creamy horseradish-cheddar cheese spread and olive oil with balsamic vinegar. Both wines were crisp and bright, matching the summery day.

From a menu divided into Beginnings, Field and Farm, Vegetarian-Vegan, and Mains, we chose the Ahi Poke ($14) appetizer and Mushroom Tartine ($14) entrée, adding an Iceberg Wedge salad ($12).

I was introduced to poke (pronounced “poh-keh,” “poh-kee” or “poh-kay”) many years ago, during my first visit to Hawaii, and I’m a fan. Although it can be made with a variety of ingredients, poke most often combines raw tuna marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil and onion. Solaire’s version was beautifully presented in a stacked column, the ruddy tuna pieces layered over creamy green avocado and a blushing-pink base of minced pickled ginger; bright-green mounds of marinated seaweed and purple-veined taro chips completed the colorful dish. I was somewhat surprised by the flavor of the tuna, which tasted slightly sweet instead of the salty-spicy taste profile that I expected and prefer. The fish was also cut into very small pieces, more like tuna tartare than typical poke.

We were delighted with the tartine (think French open-faced sandwich), served dramatically on a long rectangular white plate. Several thick-cut slices of grilled bread supported two types of foraged wild mushrooms — shimeji, or brown beech mushrooms, and maitake, also known as “hen of the woods” — in a luscious, subtly seasoned crème fraiche sauce. A perfectly poached “63-degree” egg crowned this dish with the liquid gold of its yolk when cut. (What’s a 63-degree egg? One that’s slow-cooked in the shell in water heated to 63 degrees Celsius, or about 145 degrees Fahrenheit.) The accompanying lightly dressed salad was a vibrant mix of baby greens, carrot, cucumber and sweet mini-cherry tomatoes.

“I could eat this every day,” said Laurie, as we yummed over the tartine.

The wedge salad was also quite good. Iceberg lettuce has gotten a bad rap, pushed out of its former starring salad role by more nutritional greens such as romaine, spinach and kale. But nothing beats iceberg for clean crispness and crunch. Solaire’s halved lettuce heart was much easier to eat than some unwieldy wedge salads I’ve tackled, and was decorated with generous crumbles of tangy blue cheese and housemade mini-croutons, dubbed “crumbtons” on the menu. Flanking the salad were two thick, sizzling-hot slices of smoky-sweet Daily’s bacon, chewy but crisply edged. My only criticism was that the pickled onion topping the salad had a very strong bite of flavor.

We chose the Pecan Crème Caramel ($7) from a list of tantalizing items on Solaire’s dessert menu. In another beautiful presentation, the golden mound of custard, creamily dense and not too sweet, was topped with fresh whipped cream and bordered by a double handful of richly candied pecan bits.

Our visit ended with yet another friendly employee encounter. As we were walking out Paradox’s front door, Laurie wondered aloud what the hotel accommodations were like — and an obliging staff person, Francisco, promptly offered to show us a room.

Considering the rest of the facility, we weren’t surprised to find that the room was a handsome paradox with sleekly modern furniture and a perfectly weathered barnwood wall.

Highlights

Would return for >> The terrific tartine with its scrumptious crème fraiche sauce with wild mushrooms

Don’t miss >> Take some time to walk around and appreciate the hotel and restaurant decor, including hundreds of white-jacketed books and life-size squirrel sculptures

Paradox and Solaire >> Don’t these names sound like Bond girls? Or planets on ‘Dr. Who’?

Cold shoulder >> Before turning your back iceberg lettuce, try Solaire’s super-crisp Wedge Salad

Chic cabanas >> Although reserved for hotel guests, the luxurious poolside cabanas can be rented by the public.

Ann Parker welcomes comments, feedback and suggestions about reviews for area restaurants. Contact her at atparker@pacbell.net.