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.