The Gadabout—1/16/09

Sola serves up a genuine take on Pacific-inspired American food year-round.

The impending inauguration brings with it meals dedicated to Obama’s Honolulu past and America’s future. Menus around the nation are advertising kitschy seafood specialties, apple desserts, and flag-colored cocktails as overt tributes to Tuesday’s ceremony. Sola, however, offers Chicago a genuine take on Pacific-inspired American food year-round.

Sola, nestled in the neighborhood of North Center, accurately bills itself as a “comfortable, warmly lit neighborhood spot” equally suited for casual and special occasions. The restaurant creates an inviting, hearth-like atmosphere through its soft yellow walls, brick accents, and hardwood floors. A gas-lit, three-sided fireplace completes the ambiance.

After trekking through a foot of snow this past Saturday to reach Sola for brunch, the prospect of hot chocolate seemed even more comforting than the restaurant’s warm interior. However, ours arrived lukewarm, watered-down, and with more froth than chocolate—a poor excuse for cocoa anywhere this side of Swiss Miss. However, it seems Sola’s signature cocktails have a considerably better reputation. In hindsight, given the colorful orders of our fellow patrons, we would have been better off with a red-dawn mimosa or rising-sun martini.

Thankfully, the rest of our meal gave us reason to pardon the aberrant hot chocolate. We began with a round of malasadas. These sugar-slathered donuts, a popular Hawaiian treat, arrived fresh, with a sweet crisp to the bite. Tantalizing accompaniments of creamy mango curd and tangy raspberry coulis made for a memorable experience.

Other archipelago-influenced options on Sola’s brunch menu push the restaurant past its competitors. The pineapple upside-down French toast, for example, stands out as among the best in Chicago. The toast arrived in three dense, chewy slabs studded with minute chunks of fruit and drizzled with mango curd and crème anglaise in lieu of maple syrup. Togarashi hash potatoes on the side, spiced with a type of Japanese chili, provided a uniquely flavorful contrast to all the sugar.

This is not to say that Sola can only do tropical treats. Standard brunch choices, no matter what the origin, were handled capably. The savory chilaquiles topped by scrambled eggs initially merited a private luau, but were ultimately overwhelmed by a leftover bed of tortilla hash. A fried-egg sandwich, although served over-hard instead of over-easy, thereby lacking in liquid-yolk ecstasy, fulfilled its tempting promises of Boursin cheese and homemade bacon. Sola’s short-stack of golden-brown pancakes almost merited a call to FEMA when a Category 5–amount of maple syrup breached the walls of the fluffy, moist levee, which resulted in a massive flood of American deliciousness.

Sola’s brunch shows its best side in the warm embrace of Pacific culinary culture, but its conservative elements would also satisfy anyone from Wichita, KS. The restaurant’s cozy interior and creativity with food even make it possible to enjoy watching the snowdrifts outside, as long as you’re by the fire.