Restaurant Review: Café Solé
Published: November 2009
GARETH DAVIS samples a local favourite in his home-away-from-home, Key West....
In October I got the chance to visit my favourite little spot on the planet, Key West Florida, for the biggest bash of the year, FantasyFest. Ten days of non-stop partying is what’s on offer, centring on Halloween, when almost 70,000 people descend on this little island to do things – and wear things – the folks at home would run you out of town for. Despite being a regular visitor to KW, this was my first Fest and what an eye opener! Let me put it this way. I saw enough of the human body, painted, pierced, plumed, petite and paunchy, to be able to say that clothing is a really good thing. Am I over flesh or what?! Having said that, I had THE most fantastic time. What a buzz! And I am now officially hooked.
In between all the hedonism, I managed to squeeze in a visit to a KW institution, Café Solé, a neighbourhood restaurant that’s been going for 15 years. According to garrulous Chef John Correa, it’s a splash of Provencal in the tropics. The venue is an indoorsy outdoorsy kind of place. The main dining area smacks a bit of a large garden shed open to the elements, walls of lattice and a zinc roof. But before you start rusticating it in your mind’s eye, imagine a swathe of linen tables, glistening glassware, and all the atmosphere of a relaxed upmarket eatery. This isn’t your backyard.
Seafood dominates the menu. This isn’t surprising on a Caribbean island with access to some of the best the seas can serve up on a daily basis, so plenty of salmon, grouper, snapper, tuna, shrimp and lobster for all you pescaphiles. Add the Provencal and what you end up with is a mean bouillabaisse. There’s meat in the form of duck, lamb and steak, plus a few oddments from other culinary corners of the world; carpaccio, risotto, caprese, and gazpacho. The wine list is impressive. 250 wines, and it’s not often you get to sip Alsace Riesling by the glass; a big tick from me.
I tried 3 of the soups on offer. The mushroom has recently been lauded and it certainly delivers on flavour. However, I think depth could be maintained with a more delicate texture. It was all a bit too dense. The lobster bisque and gazpacho were superior. In fact, the gazpacho was spot on.
Conch for the uninitiated is a large saltwater snail and it’s ubiquitous in KW. So much so, that the island is known as the Conch Republic. When it comes to cooking, it’s a tricky wee beastie. So many have tried to convince me of its delights and all I’ve ended up thinking is rubber. I approached Chef Correa’s conch carpaccio therefore with some trepidation. What a revelation! Perfect acidity assisted by peppers and capers rendered the conch into the most delicate little treat. Devils on horseback followed, dates wrapped in salty smoked bacon. I’ve never been a fan and I have to say I thought these examples weren’t amongst the best; the bacon was far too salty.
For my main, I opted for Filet Mignon “Casanova”, a 6oz filet served in a wild mushroom demi-glace of Sauterne, foie gras, porcini and Portobello mushrooms. The dish delivered exactly what it promised, soft, tender filet. I asked for rare and that’s what I got.
It’s easy to see why Café Solé has enjoyed such longevity. Relaxed, it has a distinctly local feel, a long spit from the swathe of tourist eateries on KW’s main strip. It also delivers good food with flavour. There’s nothing revolutionary going on here. The emphasis is on quality and comfort. I’m not convinced by the Provencal label. Yes, there are splashes of Provence but I’d say the cooking was technically more generically French with a nod to other Mediterranean cuisines. But I have no hesitation in recommending Café Solé as my Restaurant of the Month.
Restaurant Review: Café Solé
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.
For more information on the Café Solé