Transmigration of Sol

Photo by Debra DiPaoloDining with our photographer is always an adventure. She's good company, never at a loss for something to say. And she's equipped with a catalog of specific ideas about how food should be prepared, all of them based on the freshness and simplicity of her Italian mother's cooking. So what if she's talkative, badly biased and often less-than-adventurous when it comes to new restaurants? She knows what she likes.

On our way to Sol Grill in Newport Beach, she filled my ear with shop talk, alternative-press gossip and complaints about the neighbors. Sol is picturesque outside and thrift-store quaint and visually cool inside, with dark corners, a smattering of candles and a bar back by the kitchen. Its walls are covered in a hodgepodge of paintings, with mermaids, dolphins and Medusa appearing at different places around the room. At least three generations of hanging lights—brass, swag and beaded chandelier—add mood; the tableware, little of which matches, has a charming antique character. Ceiling fans paddle the night air. The place has the feel of old New Orleans and a character sadly missing from the homogenized restaurant culture of the hour.

The menu also speaks of New Orleans, but it travels as well to the Mediterranean, cattle country and beyond. There's grilled fillet mignon, rack of lamb, a halibut steak and a variety of homemade raviolis. The photographer, as is her style, took forever to decide and changed her mind frequently.

The Sol salad was a generous heap of greens lightly dressed and topped with almonds and chunky blue cheese. Kung fu shrimp, firm and flavorful, came in a generous bowl of tomato-based broth sporting chopped onions, peppers and loads of Louisiana hot sauce. We sopped up the extra sauce with thick pieces of focaccia. The photographer, who usually doesn't like shrimp or spicy food, was heard bragging to her mother about this dish in the following days.

She ordered the Newport linguine and immediately began raving about the mussels tucked in among the small clams and shrimp. These mussels, she declared, unlike the tough little green lips she'd been served at a recent dinner party, melted in her mouth and were the best she'd ever had. Indeed, they were every bit as meaty and sweet as those we used to pluck from the coves of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Always one to ask what's in a name, I looked to Sol's grill, ordering the “small” baseball-cut blackened ahi, a golf-ball-sized chunk of exquisite, buttery tuna, spiced and seared on the outside, rare on the inside, and cool and extremely flavorful at its center. It sat on a heap of yellow rice sprinkled with finely chopped papaya and almonds. Excellent! On a second visit, the photographer, hoping to savor more of those mussels, ordered the cioppino and again was pleased with the shellfish and chunks of fish swimming in a savory, not-too-spicy broth. I ordered jambalaya served over fettuccine, heavy with sliced sausage and bits of chicken in a sauce that kept my innards glowing pleasantly for hours.

After the meal, the photographer talked to the hostess and then dragged in her equipment. Before long, she had turned the place upside-down, moving a table of ladies and their dishes over to the single spotlit table, all of them joking and raving about the food. Feeling guilty, I bought the table another round of wine. The help, both cordial and relaxed, got into the act, and soon it was as if we had thrown our own little party —a party in which the food was really, really good. Best of all, the photographer likes it.

Sol Grill, located at 110 McFadden Place, Newport Beach, is open for dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. (949) 723-4105. Dinner for two, $22-$50, food only. Beer and wine. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.

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