Welcome to Brunched, where Chow Bella samples local restaurants' offerings for our favorite meal. Hey, you get to sleep in and eat breakfast -- what's not to like?
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What: SOL Mexican Cocina Where: Scottsdale Quarter, 15323 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-245-6798 When: Weekend Brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday How much: A la carte menu, $10-$17.50 \
Mood: The first thing my friend asks our hostess as we're being led to a table is, "Is this a chain restaurant?" It isn't, but it's the second location for SOL, a decidely upscale Mexican restaurant first opened on the Balboa Marina in Newport Beach. She's a design freak, this friend, and she asks the question because SOL looks like money -- thanks to an abundance of wood, tile and imported Mexican stone in the dining room and an expanse of pricy copper in the exhibition kitchen. We ooh and ahh over boutique tequila bottles, chandeliers and the rustic beams that support them, forgiving the cool, corporate look in light of so appealing design touches. Although I question whether this location emotes a sunny "laid-back beach vibe," (it looks more like Old World hacienda meets Sam Fox restaurant to me), I like it just the same.
Food: Five-time cookbook author and celebrity chef Deborah Schneider -- nominated for a James Beard award in 2009 for her cookbook Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta -- is the brainy surfer girl behind this concept, and her modern spin on Baja-style seafood reflects her interest in light, healthy cooking. There's even a section on the restaurant's website that lists vegetarian and vegan options.
And here's an enlightening note: the money guys behind SOL are Rich Howland (one of Ra Sushi's founders) and Dennis, Mike and Jeffrey Mastro -- the steakhouse studs who started Mastro's Group (but later sold it), opening Michael Dominick's in 2011 to compete with the original steakhouses they created so long ago.
The man running the SOL show on any given day, however, is "head chef" Ernesto Lopez, a Phoenix native who grew up in the local Mexican restaurant business before taking an executive chef position at Z'Tejas, where he stayed for 11 years. Besides the ketchup and mayo, everything in his kitchen is homemade.
Which prompts the question: why don't my friends and I like the food better? The website pictures are gorgeous, the light but flavorful approach sounds awesome and yet we walk away unimpressed and disinclined to return -- except for one yummy thing, and I'll get to that shortly.
There's really nothing wrong with Quesadilla con Huevos, two griddled flour tortillas, filled with bland scrambled eggs (a universal opinion about all the eggs) and a melt of three Mexican cheeses, each pie-shaped wedge topped with pico de gallo and drizzles of avocado sauce and chipotle sauce. The dish is fine and the portion is large, but then, so is the price for tortilla, egg and cheese ($12). And who really wants this much food anyway?
Recipes for chilaquiles are as varied as the cooks who make them. Some are layered and baked like lasagna, others look more like a slapdash throw-together of corn chips, chile sauce and cheese (a quick hangover cure for a hungover cook). So I'm always open-minded about the preparation. SOL's version has all the right components and then some -- including medium-spicy tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, eggs, cotija chese, crema and onions -- but it's a bit too dry for me ($11.75). More sauce, please, and do we really need a bowl the size of a bird bath?
There's nothing memorable -- or even likeable -- about Huevos Mexicanos al Gusto either, a dish that promises so much more than it delivers: eggs scrambled with nopales, onion, roasted chiles and cheese, served with black beans, pico de gallo and warm tortillas. We tacked on serviceable chorizo, which brought the price to $12.50. Que lastima! No me gusto.
One thing we all noticed: terrible eggs. So tasteless we thought they might be poured from a carton but our waitress insisted they were "farm-fresh." What an annoying and utterly pointless phrase that's become!
But there was one dish I absolutely loved and didn't really want to share -- the Souffle Carlota -- an ultra-rich, crazy-creamy version of French toast made with slabs of Patron Citronage-spiked bread pudding, scented with lemon zest and butter-sauteed until the edges were crunchy. Drizzled with organic agave syrup, dusted with powdered sugar and sided with mango, berries, almonds and drifts of whipped cream, this thing was ridiculously good -- more dessert, however, than breakfast ($11.75).
Drink: SOL prides itself on its premium tequilas, so consider building your own custom margarita ($9). Other beverage options include house-made Bloody Mary ($8), a Grayhound with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice ($8), a Mango Mimosa and a Botttomless Mimosa ($7 + $1 refills with entree purchase).
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Bottom Line: I want to like this place but ultimately, I don't. Prices too high, portions too big, food too average. But I'll be back for the Souffle Carlota, and next time, I'm coming alone.