By Rachelle Bowden in Food on Feb 16, 2006 8:41PM
When Chicagoist went out to check out Chef Carol Wallack's new restaurant, sola (3868 N. Lincoln Ave.), this week we had high hopes. Luckily, we were not disappointed. The cuisine at sola is contemporary American, but because of Chef Wallack's background, there's a lot of Hawaiian and Asian flair. Chicagoist started off with the lobster and shitake potstickers (no-brainer!) and a carmelized onion tartlet (gruyere, sweet Maui onions, and apple) that we thought was intruging and ended up being really "wow"ed by. Delish. We also tried the hot and sour soup. Best. Hot & Sour. Ever. For entrees we stuck with seafood, which is the majority of the menu, but there is a NY Strip for those who need to get their meat on. Chicagoist got the ono and miso black cod - Nobu's famous. Both were cooked perfectly, flavorful with sides and sauces that complimented, but didn't overwhelm these tender fish. Oh, also, the waiter didn't need to twist our arm very hard to get us to try the parmesan truffle french fries. Holy smokes, pommes frites used to be our favorite fried pototo, but not any more.
The drink menu included many specialty, tropical drinks. We were partial to the Wicked Wahine and the mai tai. Don't know what were in them, but they were sweet and fruity and brought us back to the islands. Also, you won't find any Bud Lite on the beer menu. They've taken care to select unique beers and we enjoyed trying the Bitter End Pale Ale and Alpha King Pale Ale.
Chef Wallack was raised in Malibu and lived in Hawaii. She describes herself as a "surfer girl," but it's a bit more serious than that. After high school Chef Wallack was on the surfing circuit and travelled internationally. Then about 10 years ago she moved to Chicago and opened up Deleece (another Chicagoist favorite) with her sister. Ready to strike out on her own, Chef Wallack opened sola just a few weeks ago. We learned all of the tidbits about the chef while talking with her during our dinner. We saw her mingling around the dining room a bit so we hope she'd stop by. Maybe we're just dorks, but talking to the chef always makes us feel like superstars! Once Chef Wallack figured out that Chicagoist's date was raised in Hawaii, she had to pull up a seat to reminisce. Awesome! Chef Wallack owns a house in Mauai that is not only a good real estate investment that pretty much guarantees she'll be retiring in paradise, but also is a reason for her to go back to the islands about 10 times per year. And this gives her a chance to make some important hookups, like the kind she has with her fish supplier for sola. They're able to offer fresh Hawaiian fish like ono (a Hawaiian fish in the mackeral family) and opakapaka (Hawaiian snapper) because Chef Wallack has worked out a deal so that when the fish are caught, they're immediately shipped to her and within 36 hours are served as your dinner. Pretty quick for fish only available across the globe.
Chef Wallack was very personable and open to talking and answering any questions we had about the menu or the restaurant. When it came time for dessert we weren't able to decide what to get. Chef told us what she liked best but then said "you know, but get what you want" and we were kind of like "but if the chef recommends something, you have to get it, right?" As a compromise, she went back into the kitchen and made us a combo sampler platter with each of the desserts we said we were interested in trying. Our waiter said he'd never seen that before.. so .. Score! Another nice touch was that 2 people near us were having birthdays. They were given little birthday desserts with a candle in them and around the edge of the plate it said "Happy Birthday," in Hawaiian: "Hau'oli La Hanau."
What it really comes down to are the details at sola. When you walk in they check your coat for you, when it's your birthday they acknowledge it without being obnoxious, if you have questions they answer them unpretentiously: they go out of their way to make sure you're happy. And the space is gorgeous. Did we forget to mention that? So warm and inviting. Not so dark that you need a flashlight to read the menu, but not so bright and stark that you feel like you're in the hospital cafeteria. Chef Wallack got everything at sola just right.
More photos at rachelleb.com