When Solera opened on Hennepin Avenue in 2002, it was a BFD in the local restaurant scene. Tim McKee and Josh Thoma were basking in the early critical glow of then-Stillwater-located La Belle Vie, and the tapas they installed next to the Orpheum were a revelation.
It was a foundational restaurant for many in the local hospitality industry, so it’s no surprise that Travail Kitchen & Amusements would choose an homage to Solera as the theme for their newest limited-run residency in the old Bradstreet space in Uptown.
And while we’re excited for the return of stuffed peppers, croquettes, and octopus, we wondered, what of the drinks? Despite some all-star talent behind the bar, including Anne Clifford and Ian Lowther, Solera wasn’t exactly known for its cocktails. It was a place to sip a G&T, sangria, and Rioja.
That’s the challenge posed to Travail’s bar manager Nathaniel Smith: how to devise a cocktail menu that’s a throwback to a place where people really didn’t drink cocktails?
“Not many people are really looking to go back to that style of drinking,” he says of the early 2000s. “We’ll do the G&T, the sangria, and we’ll do them well. But if you don’t remember what it was like [at Solera], you can come along for a whole new experience.”
We stopped in during staff training for a sneak-sip or two, and were delighted at the Spanish touches we found all over this thoughtful menu. If Solera did one memorable thing behind the bar, it was introducing Minneapolis to sherry. Smith deftly incorporates the fortified Spanish wine in several classics: it adds minerality to their house margarita (El Valiente) and a sweeter Pedro Ximenez sherry stands in for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan.
In a riff on Solera’s small plates, Smith lines up five small “tapas” cocktails: each one-and-a-half ounces of a pre-diluted, spirit-forward classic. We’re not much for vodka martinis, but are starting to think that the brine of a high-quality Spanish olive just might be our ticket back. The improved Adonis pairs the nuttiness of amontillado sherry with a noseful of mint.
The Spanish Caravan might be the drink that tastes most like Solera (while having nothing to do with Solera, of course). The banana-yellow gin sour features muddled celery, saffron liqueur and saffron syrup, greek yogurt, turmeric, and comes dotted with pimentón oil. It’s vegetal and floral, and striking.
We also highly recommend both the shimming golden Spanish brandy old fashioned (El Dorado) and one of the better whiskey sours we’ve had in some time (Las Sopetas), which sports a lovely aquafaba foam and tastes like wine-soaked peaches.
Solera at Travail debuts tomorrow, Friday, September 20. Ticketed reservations are required for the full menu, but cocktails and pintxos are available at the bar, first-come, first-served.