REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
I still remember the first time we went to Sola, shortly after then-chef/owner John Wolferth, formerly of Wooden Iron in Wayne, opened it 10 years ago this month at 614 W. Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr. Every table was occupied on a frigid Tuesday night, and the friendly young servers were hugging so many customers (obviously regulars), we thought they might be taping a segment of the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Many customers might assume that the name Sola means “sun” (in Latin, “sol” means “sun,” and “sola” actually means “alone”), but in this case the name was shorthand for “South of Lancaster Avenue.” Sola has a warm, homey vibe with no starchy sense of propriety.
There is no protective scaffolding in the restaurant business, so the fact that this small, unpretentious BYOB still remains after a decade means they must be doing something right, although there have been significant changes in personnel. Brian Engler, 46, a former retail stock broker on Wall Street in Manhattan, bought the restaurant more than two years ago after realizing that “Wall Street was not for me.”
Originally from North Jersey, Engler insisted that “once I got into the restaurant business, I loved it. I really am having fun. I still love coming to work. We have a small staff here, and it really is like a family. Prior to Sola, I was a consultant for a group of guys who reopened Kelly’s near Villanova U.”
Engler is definitely a hands-on owner. He takes orders, serves food, removes plates and clearly enjoys chatting with customers. He and recently hired chef Colin Mason work together like a light switch and a light bulb. Mason, 29, made his bones by working at Fork in Philadelphia, Nectar in Berwyn and Susanna Foo in Radnor, and under his leadership, Sola has its sexy back.
A West Chester native, Mason went to boarding school in Hershey and now lives in Bryn Mawr. “I grew up with boxed rigatoni and Ragu red sauce,” said Colin. “I went to Cabrini College in Radnor for journalism, but I worked in restaurants to pay my tuition, and I fell in love with it. I worked in catering and at Griffin Café in Wayne and then Mims in Wayne that became the Freehouse. I worked for free. I met my wife there. She and her friends were the only customers the night I met her.”
Mason’s menu focuses on contemporary American cuisine with French and Mediterranean influences. Sola offers a seasonally inspired menu taking advantage of a small network of local farms and organic producers of cheese, honey and other items. All desserts and rolls, even the butters (amazing) are made in-house.
We both gave in to the gravitational pull of the charred octopus with a whisper of black garlic puree, an elixir of olive relish and impeccably moist, crispy potatoes ($17). Other sterling presentations were the braised short ribs anointed in their own juice ($28) and the Alaskan halibut napped with a pistachio crust and hugged by a silky textured sunchoke puree ($34).
An entree of ricotta gnudi was like the softest pillows of pasta imaginable, similar to gnocchi, suffused with brown butter, kissed by butternut squash and draped in a sensuous mushroom-scented sauce ($22). This is a dish for the space capsule.
For dessert, you cannot go wrong with the palate-stunning richness of the molten chocolate gateau with warm caramel sauce and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Or the carrot cake with cream cheese icing, marcona almonds and almond ice cream. All desserts are $8.
There is a line in the Broadway musical “Auntie Mame” that “life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Customers at Sola will find, however, that life is a banquet, and they are reveling in the most delectable delights that the banquet has to offer.
For those who bring wine, high-quality wine glasses are provided. There is a corkage fee of $2 per bottle. There is a parking lot right next to Sola, and it is tempting to park there, but we were warned that your car might be towed. There is street parking, however, and an Acme supermarket right across the street.
There was soft music in the background, and the noise level for a small restaurant was surprisingly low. If you check the customer reviews on yelp.com, you will see that most of those posted in 2014 have been five stars.
For more information or reservations, call (610) 526-0123 or visit www.solabyob.com.