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Written by: Justin Lo
Step into Bar Solita on West Broad Street in the city’s Arts District, and your mood is suddenly lifted. The space is lush and verdant — with walls a zephyrous palm green, and soaring windows streaming in light that fills the long, expansive room. To the left, there’s a mural of tropical birds of paradise, and palm, fig and lemon trees.
The restaurant’s design embodies that “glow of a lost Paradise of plenty and glamour” that British food writer Elizabeth David once used to describe Mediterranean cuisine, a genre she’s credited with introducing to the Western world. For David, this cuisine’s tapestry of influences — from Italy and Spain to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East — was the antidote to a “particularly bleak and painful period of English gastronomic life” after the Second World War.
Though Richmond is far from postwar England, we could use a little “glow of a lost Paradise” in our lives. And Bar Solita — with its menu of Mediterranean cuisine, as it’s broadly defined — delivers that experience.
Dining at Bar Solita feels a lot like a Mediterranean pleasure cruise. The musical selection mainly consists of pulsating beats one would expect to hear at Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club in Mykonos. And the servers’ geniality makes them seem more like “brand ambassadors.”
The same can be said of the food. Don’t expect anything too complex or sophisticated. The restaurant serves food that’s meant to be fun and enjoyable, not to leave diners puzzling over cerebral aspects of a dish. And it’s hard not to find something to like about each one.
The broccoli-and-ricotta empanadas ($9) aren’t dense and doughy as they sometimes are elsewhere. A laminated pastry dough gives them a barely there flakiness that I enjoyed. And the accompanying hot sauce lends a nice acidity, even if its heat level wouldn’t register on the Scoville scale.
Equally pleasant is the za’atar spiced feta ($7). The texture of the cheese is sturdy yet springy, like extra-firm tofu. Eaten with other elements of this dish — a piquant marinara sauce, golden-brown slices of focaccia — it reminded me, in the best way, of a deconstructed mozzarella stick.
The gambas al ajillo ($10), while lacking the assertive headiness of garlic I love about this classic dish, are still flavorful. Shrimp, plump and juicy, lie gently furled in a luminescent pool of olive oil and smoked paprika.
I would also happily reorder the falafel ($8), even if they don’t rank among my favorite renditions of this dish. Cocooned in the fried rust-brown husks of these golf ball-sized chickpea fritters is an intensely spiced, chunky filling that brings to mind the flavors of a samosa.
The standouts are pizzas prepared in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven, giving them that deliciously rustic and sooty finish. Though its name had me worried the dish would be too heavy-handed in the use of pesto, the “basil pesto” pizza ($14) avoids that pitfall. A thin undercoat of pesto allows other toppings — bits of butternut squash, confetti ribbons of Brussels sprouts, dollops of ricotta, slivers of red onion and a sprinkling of pepitas — to shine. The result conveys the blitheness of a vegetable garden.
Though you’d be fine skipping the large plates and pastas, the lamb chops ($32) are nonetheless a safe choice. A trio of grilled lamb medallions, their tender and velvety pink flesh still clutching onto claw-like bones, goes nicely with a pungent hit of garlicky gremolata.
With such delightful fare, you’re sure to end your meal feeling tipsy with joy — even actually tipsy if your table orders a bottle à la porron, a communal vessel that turns wine consumption into a game.
But if dinner at Bar Solita is a pleasure cruise, brunch is a hedonistic yacht party. Bloody mary fixings, like tree-bark strips of bacon, come wheeled out on carts ($3/glass). Or, your table can commune over boozy punch out of a ceramic flamingo’s backside ($28). Brunch menu items, like tire-sized cinnamon buns ($12), are similarly indulgent.
More than anything, where Bar Solita excels is in capturing a glimmer of that carefree bliss you’d experience while summering in the Mediterranean. So go ahead and take a little staycation, at least until the check comes.