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REVIEW: Bar Solita puts another notch on the arts district’s restaurant belt 

click to enlarge food07_barsolita.jpg

Ash Daniel

After attracting visitors and suburban crowds with Tarrant's enormous menu and the theater and occasion crowd with Franco-Belgian at Max's on Broad, RVA Hospitality Group's latest foray onto the street sets its sights on nearby mouths.

I'm talking about people living within walking distance of Bar Solita, the group's fresh imprint at the former Graffiato space across from Quirk Hotel. Yes, it's still a vast space, seating 200 — don't forget the building began life as a furniture store — but gone is the testosterone-soaked, graffiti-covered, black-walled industrial vibe. Replacing it is a wash of softer, organic colors like mustard yellow and celery green, accented by new black and white floor tiles and even — gasp — plants. Atop deep windowsills along Jefferson Street sit dusky green window boxes of handsome plants, bringing fresh life to the space.

The two massive community tables that forced booth-obsessed Richmonders to mingle with strangers underwent a little nip and tuck, resulting in four smaller tables rotated parallel to Broad Street. Not only are they more attractive, they're cozier.

From the colors of a mural depicting an outdoor scene with fig, palm and lemon trees that greets the hungry and thirsty masses to the wood-fired oven in the back that stands as testament to the days when embattled celebrity chef Mike Isabella ruled the roost here, Bar Solita is prepared to wear many hats.

One of those is as neighborhood pizza joint with half a dozen offerings, including classics such as Margherita, old faves like pepperoni and the basil pesto ($14), a verdant pleasure of roasted winter squash, red onions and shaved Brussels sprouts made mouthwatering with dollops of ricotta and a sprinkle of spiced ground squash seeds. Any way you slice it, it's a vegetarian pie done right. Simple meets sublime with the capocollo and arugula pizza ($14), boasting nothing else beyond extra virgin olive oil and crumbled feta for a pie with a freshness I can get behind.

When wearing its tapas hat, Bar Solita proudly shows off its Mediterranean aspirations. Whichever way you swing, you can't go wrong with empanadas ($9) thanks to a flaky crust that satisfies while allowing the inner light to shine. And while avocado crema and hot sauce nicely offset spicy carnitas, the pushy heat of hot sauce does no favors to the delicacy of the broccoli and ricotta empanada, which needed no accessorizing.

As tapas go, few are as well-loved as gambas al Ajillo ($10), shrimp swimming in a bath of garlic-infused olive oil, but what puts our mouths on full alert are paprika notes both smoky and sweet. To enjoy every last bit, try sopping with the accompanying house focaccia that gets a swipe of olive oil before a toasting in the pizza oven. The potato classic, papas brava ($2 as an upgraded sandwich side, $5 as a regular side), announces itself exactly as it should with crispy crusts and creamy interiors, ably abetted by spicy roasted tomato aioli. More, please.

Welcoming a range of appetites, the focus on pies and tapas keeps the menu succinct when it comes to pastas, sandwiches, salads and entrees. The lemon beurre blanc of shrimp farfelle ($18) adds both delicacy and richness to an otherwise straightforward dish. Only slightly overdone souvlakia skewers ($8) miss their mark, although it's nothing the accompanying tzatziki can't remedy.

Fattoush salad ($8) riffs on the traditional Lebanese or Syrian bread salad fattoush, which, like Tuscan panzanella, puts old bread to good use with the help of tomatoes. Here, the focaccia becomes croutons that ride shotgun with a salad of tomato, mixed greens, red pepper, onion and cucumber bathed in a lively, if overly generous, lime vinaigrette. Next time, I'll mix in the croutons and let the focaccia and tomato mingle until they're better acquainted while I try other things before digging in.

It should be clear by its name that Bar Solita wants you to drink. The extensive bar serves beer, wine and cocktails, but you can't go wrong washing down tapas with fig lemonade ($5) for a suitably Mediterranean sipper.

For that matter, you can't miss with a neighborhood place serving up pizza, tapas and libations. That it's open all day, every day with a 2 a.m. bar close three nights a week? Allow me to say welcome to the neighborhood, Bar Solita.

Bar Solita
123 W. Broad St.
308-3605
Mondays - Fridays 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Saturdays - Sundays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Thursdays - Saturdays, bar open until 2 a.m.
Brunch Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
barsolita.com

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