I've been thinking a lot about value recently. It's come up in numerous ways. Restaurants seem outrageously expensive all of a sudden, much more so than a year or two ago. And readers have been asking me, "What's out there for me? Reviews of fancy restaurants are all good and well, but at the end of the pay period, what I want is something decent that I can afford."
This underscores an interesting truth about the Atlanta dining scene. We can now compete on a national and perhaps even international level when it comes to our very best restaurants. Our culinary industry is vibrant and ever-changing, enough to keep an interested gastronome (or harried restaurant critic) engorged and engaged.
Where we don't measure up, however, is in our casual food, our everyday, affordable and accessible nonethnic eateries. There are small cafes on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Paris, San Francisco, and countless other cities serving food that would be considered a startling find in Atlanta.
With that in mind, I decided to focus for a while on smaller, more casual places in town that are doing things well. One of the first places that came to mind was Solstice Café in Grant Park. Opened in late 2006, Solstice is the ultimate neighborhood cafe, especially if that neighborhood is Grant Park.
It's relaxed, funky and has a kind of friendly, well-worn feel. Refreshingly, the personality of the owners shines through in the ambiance and decor of the place; vibrant, large paintings – mostly oversized portraits – decorate the walls in a pleasing jumble. The music is loud and good – old soul can be followed by Beck and Blood on the Tracks.
Solstice only recently got its liquor license, and to celebrate the owners built a large wooden bar in the main dining room, where previously there had been only a small coffee station. With the booze, Solstice is slowly gaining a quiet bar scene, as well as more of a dinner crowd (although calling it a "crowd" is pushing it).
What the cafe really excels at is the same meal it's always done well: breakfast. Desperately tired of the same old egg dishes, I find Solstice's crepe-and-egg creations a breath of fresh brunch. Crepes Benedict wraps two delicate crepes around diced smoked ham, and tops the combination with poached eggs and hollandaise. Even better are the steak crepes – the same basic idea but with steak, caramelized onions and béarnaise sauce. Diced potatoes on the side are crispy and interspersed with sweet red pepper and crackly onion. For a simpler, but no less satisfying start to your day, the hearty breakfast sandwich is served on good rustic bread and is a big enough serving of eggs, bacon and cheese to make you want to return to bed.
Solstice also does a great lunch. I'm particularly partial to the BLFGT, a generous play on the classic BLT but with fried green tomatoes and goat cheese to complement applewood-smoked bacon. I also liked a recent lunch special Greek salad, which was topped by shredded lamb, making for an honest, delicious pile of greens, meat and veggies.
The cafe doesn't do as well at dinner. The new liquor license is mainly good for just that – liquor. The wine selection is sparse and not particularly inspired (think B.V. chardonnay). I did best ordering a pitcher of sangria, in which the fruit did a nice job of balancing out the cheapish wine. But the bartender knew her stuff: A pint-glass-sized mojito was delicious.
There are only three entrees on the regular dinner menu and only one I can heartily recommend. Ritz-crusted chicken breast with mushroom Marsala sauce is a funny blend of feel-good home cooking and wrong-headed richness, but somehow it works. It's not particularly elegant, but it is tasty. The other entrees are scallops wrapped in bacon, and steak with roasted shallot demi-glaze (sic). The bacon around the scallops tasted a little, um, skanky on the night I sampled the dish (which is strange because the place uses such good bacon at breakfast). The steak was tasteless and lifeless, and the sauce tasted canned.
Other options at night include a variety of pastas. By far the best bet is the butternut-squash ravioli, which come in a brown butter cinnamon sauce. They smell like cinnamon toast and I expected an overly sweet flavor, but the only sweetness was the natural depth of the squash. The dish is actually quite savory in a musky, earthy way.
I didn't fare as well with the mushroom risotto – the rice was broken and lacked the creamy consistency of great risotto. Ziti with pink vodka sauce was bland, but a special of spaghetti with shrimp and Gorgonzola was rich and creamy – again, not particularly refined, but tasty all the same.
As it stands, Solstice is much better at the simple stuff – sandwiches, salads, breakfast dishes. I'm not sure why the kitchen feels the need when it comes to dinner entrees to move away from the simplicity that works so well on the other parts of the menu. Rich sauces and haute-inspired entrees are all good and well, but they aren't required. And in a neighborhood like Grant Park, part of what's important is a restaurant where you can sink into one of the comfy couches, get a good cup of coffee or a great mojito, and feel welcomed by the quirky and friendly staff. Solstice Café excels at breakfast, lunch and atmosphere. We could use more places like it around these parts.