By Jennifer White
Walking into Solo American Bistro is like walking into a twilight zone of urban chic. I was still in Key West, but with enough mixology drinks, I almost fooled myself into thinking that I was schmoozing somewhere fancy in Times Square.
The walls of naked brick are stacked high to the tip of an uncovered ceiling, the pipes of the ventilation system spray painted a neutral matte color. Black leather chairs and marble tops fashioned the dining room barely lit by an embrace of dim halogen and candle. I took my seat at a long high top bar and was immediately greeted by a soft-spoken bartender, whose slow and sensuous tone was somewhat a reflection of the mood around us. Handing me the menu she introduced me to Solo as being a place amongst the Old Town madness where one could get an elegant meal without having to dress for it. “An American Bistro,” she concluded.
I slipped into my surroundings and ordered a ginger margarita with ginger salted rim, scanning the cosmopolitan and wondered but what, exactly, is an American bistro?
A bistro, by gourmet definition balances a thin line between fine and casual dining. It’s not T.G.I.F’s, but there’s no judgemental maître d’ sizing you up either. It’s something a little more modern. If I had been in New York it would be a dimly lit brick room with leather and marble and Betsey Johnson. In Key West it is more like a dimly lit brick room with leather and marble and Roxy.
Most importantly, a bistro should define the polished adaptation of street food like the good old American hamburger jazzed up with foie gras and a temperature controlled craft beer instead of just slapped on a sesame seed bun. Though usually associated with robust French foods — because lets face it, French food can’t help but be fancy — by calling a bistro “American” it allows for a menu fit for this tropic city. Anything too pretentious would have a hard time fitting in.
Dishes like seared grouper on a bed of spinach fettuccine with citrus arugula and clam sauce, and tuna tartar with caviar are marched into the dining room from behind a set of double doors. Then a variety of flat breads that look suspiciously like pizza with seductive red sauce and shitakke mushroom and wild boar make their way to my place. When my cheese plate arrives I am slightly disappointed that the waitress did not introduce the selection to me, but then quickly excused my fuss. I guess this is where the casual (or the American) comes in.
On the other side of the doors the head Chef uses his knowledge of French cooking which he acquired from years behind the line at Banana Cafe to give the food its sophistication. Stepping into the kitchen there is nothing casual about the intensity and concentration at all. There is certainly nothing casual about flash flames. It was obvious that this was the fine dining part, or the bistro part.
Solo has that metropolitan attraction, like a no man’s land for socialites, with just the right mix of downtown sexy and laid back island groove. The food is inspired but not pretentious. The service prompt, yet carefree. Though it may not be anything big city yet, it is one of the few restaurants in Key West that will give us a little meaning to the word “downtown.”
Solo American Bistro is located at 610 Greene St., Key West.