Hotel restaurants have a reputation for serving mediocre meals, at best.
Located inside the just-opened Hotel Paradox on Ocean Street, Solaire Restaurant and Bar is well aware of the "bad rap," and they've made it their mission not to join the ranks of hotels that get away with serving overpriced garbage to convience-seeking guests.
"For all intents and purposes we could be an independent restaurant, we're just located in a hotel," said Executive Chef Ross McKee, who left his post at the Dream Inn's distinguished restaurant, Aquarius, to start up Solaire.
While other hotels expect to capture a certain amount of business from their hotel guests, McKee says Solaire's vision is entirely different:
"We're not expecting that, in fact, what we're really after is local business. The bread and butter of making it through winter time when we don't have a lot of leisure guests, is going to be bringing locals in."
The way to do that is to dump money back into the local economy, says McKee, who is slowly building his menu around his connections to local farms. He's already sourcing the menu with products from Glaum Egg Ranch, Happy Boy Farms, Dirty Girl Produce, and Route 1 Farms through Coke Farms, and plans on letting the menu follow whatever's in season locally.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the sleekly modern-yet-natural dining room (think white upholstered booths, minimal colors, cozy fire place, and a ceiling super-imposed with blue sky and tree branches) was speckled with lunchtime customers trying out the menu for the first time.
"We're still discovering who we are," said Food and Beverage Director, Micheal Blecman. "It's kind of cool being a young restaurant like this because you see the menu developing right in front of your eyes."
Although our server assured us that the menu would be growing in the coming weeks, the lunch menu is off to a solid start, with seafood classics, modestly priced salads and sandwiches, and boldly-placed vegetarian dishes (the first two main courses are vegetarian).
The Fried Calamari appetizer, $13, came recommended by our server. Its crisp golden coating and delicate lemon flavor silenced our compulsion to plunge it into some mayonaise-guilty sauce, which was missing from the plate, and just enjoy this legitimate take on Monterey Bay calamari.
The mussels, $20, were one of the only seafoods not locally sourced (they came from Marin County) but that was also forgiven, thanks to their rich sauce of pernod, white wine, and leeks, deliciously laced with a unique note of fennel.
Chef McKee couldn't be happier with the way that BPR Properties, owner of Hotel Paradox, has given him free rein to create the menu, and the chef's creativity is apparent in menu offerings like Stuffed Piquante Peppers, $6, and in the way he gets excited talking about a soon-to-be offered Korbuta Pork—raised in Hollister, the meat of these Berkshire Pigs turns deep red because of their diet of scotch grains and chocolate. Yes, chocolate.
But then, the menu also comes with a lightness in addition to the vegetarian and vegan options:
"It's Santa Cruz and we'd like to keep the prices down, we'd like to have a lower check average to encourage the locals to come," said McKee.
My Garden Banhi Mi sandwich ($8) was a thick slab of grilled tofu, with a light peppering of pickled cucumbers, cabbage, and carrots and a spicy aioli. The sandwich was huge, served on a toasted baguette with a heaping portion of house-made chips.
Dessert was a parade of generously portioned comforting indulgences, all priced at $7. The Goat Cheese Panacotta was "sublime," according to my dining partner, not too sweet, with a dollop of strawberry glaze. The peach strudel, although it called out for a cooling scoop of vanilla ice cream, was a wonderful hard shell of rich strudel crumbles and hot peaches—not mushy or overripe, but perfect—bathing in a sweet cinnamon syrup. The bread pudding, though, with an espresso sauce to pour over the top, packed the richest punch.
Next time, we'll be curious to try the local Sand Dabs ($17), the Caprese salad with its fresh house-made mozarella cheese, and of course, the wine and beer menu which feature local wineries like Chalone, and beers from the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery.
The serene dining room of Solaire is large and airy enough for business meetings to take place in one corner without disrupting an intimate dinner in another corner, and the pool that glistens outside the patio doors is open for the public to use, with a minimum food and beverage requirement to be announced.
Overall, we were impressed.
"You always have that old image of hotel food, you really do, but we're looking at Solaire as a separate entity than Hotel Paradox," said Blecman. It's like when you look at Aquarius and Dream Inn, you don't look at them as one and the same, or at least I don't."
Solaire Restaurant and Bar will be participating in Santa Cruz Restaurant Week—check them out and let us know what you think!
You can also make a reservation at Solaire at Opentable.com.