Pricey Time Travel

The Solarium's Decor Is Straight From The Fern Bar '70s, But The Prices Are Painfully '90s.

By Rebecca Cook

FOR MORE THAN 20 years, the Solarium, along East Tanque Verde's legendary "restaurant row," has been captivating Tucson diners. The architecture, with its lofty beamed ceilings, multi-level dining rooms, a plethora of custom-designed windows, stained glass and rock-and-tile booths, represents a sophisticated California fern bar sensibility--an impression further enhanced by a tasteful abundance of green plants. The collective effect is singular and charming.

Yet, as H.G. Wells tried to tell us, time travel has its price. And be forewarned: At the Solarium, you'll have to pay top dollar. Ambiance and sentimentality is only worth so much. For a restaurant, sooner it later it all comes down to the food, and this obviously is not the Solarium's prime concern.

Chow It's not just that the menu is a bit tired and humdrum, the food essentially mundane or the service a bit lackadaisical. What halts the merry meandering down memory lane at the Solarium are the prices, which are easily on a par with some of the swankiest joints in town. Call me crazy, but if I'm going to spend big bucks, I want to be wooed. I want my taste buds to be thoroughly thrilled, and I want to get up from the table infused with the kind of profound glow in my soul that only a meal of superlatives can produce. To say that the Solarium falls short of this cost-for-value expectation would be an understatement.

Lunch here is low-key and casual, with a menu reflecting prices that are at least within striking distance of reasonable (the highest-priced item being sea scallops and pasta for $12.75). Lunch is not apparently the meal of choice for most diners--the day we visited at peak noon hour, there were but a handful of occupied tables.

We sampled a crab Louie salad ($10.95) and a house specialty Southwest chicken ($9.25), which consisted of a boneless, skinless chicken breast sautéed in salsa butter and stuffed with green-chile strips and feta cheese. The salad was nice: lots of crabmeat (albeit previously frozen crabmeat) served atop a large plateful of mixed greens, shredded red cabbage, wedges of fresh tomato, sliced cucumber and red onion. The dressing was thoughtfully added in a small pitcher on the side. There was nothing flashy or unusual about the salad, but it managed to hit the spot.

The chicken breast was moist and tender, but disappointingly bland. Somehow I expected the salsa butter and chile to add a bit more zest to this dish. To make matters worse, it was accompanied by an embarrassing preparation of rice and an inedible trio of steamed broccoli, carrots and yellow squash, which added absolutely nothing but color to the plate.

In addition, it took forever to get out of the Solarium. Even though the restaurant was far from busy, the service was incredibly plodding, with interminable periods during which our server quite literally vanished. We waited on every snippet of our meal, causing a workday lunch hour to stretch alarmingly to nearly two hours. If you're punching a clock, beware.

Dinner is livelier. Happy hour draws in the younger crowd and the resulting conversational buzz permeating the place gives the impression of a happening scene.

Unfortunately, this energy doesn't seem to have penetrated as far as the kitchen, where a spirit of ennui pervades most every preparation.

Rather than expend our appetites on fried zucchini or traditional shrimp cocktails (the typical Solarium appetizer), we opted to sample soup and salad. Featured that day was a lovely tomato bisque, smoothly puréed and imbued with the sweet character of fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes. A sprinkling of Tabasco or red chile infused the roux with a gentle and pleasing piquancy.

The house salad consisted of mixed mesclun greens, red cabbage and fresh tomatoes topped with the house dijon vinaigrette. Nothing revolutionary, but certainly enjoyable.

Once known for its prime rib, the Solarium in recent years has bolstered its seafood and pasta offerings. I was impressed with the various fish specials as well as the standing selection of shrimp dishes, scallops, lobster and crab. In particular, I was tempted by the king crab legs, a longtime favorite of mine. So, true to form, I ordered it. Without asking the "market price." Without inquiring if they were fresh. Big mistake.

Three incredibly large legs were presented conveniently halved, allowing easy access to the luxurious white meat inside. The butter that came with the big claws was so beautifully clarified I could almost catch my reflection in the yellowish pool. The meat was decent enough, slightly tough or mushy in some places , but still fairly tasty. Not great by any means, but pretty good.

Later, however, when I found out this dish was going for $29.95 a pop, I was not a happy camper.

A taste of the featured fish specials proved slightly more satisfying, but, at $18.95, a bit expensive. A Mexican lenguado (flounder), sautéed lightly and stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese, was obviously fresh and actually very pleasing, but devoid of distinctive flavors. To remedy this situation, we added the only available condiment, a generous dash of hot sauce.

A fresh salmon fillet, poached and served with a breath of green-chile butter, was also quite good. The only drawback was the previously mentioned rice and steamed vegetables, which seemed to be recycled through the evening meal. Not a welcome sight.

Happily, however, dessert at the Solarium is absolutely scrumptious, a circumstance that can nudge even the most prosaic of meals into a passing grade. Most impressive is the Solarium cake, dense layers of chocolate cake with variegated fillings of white and dark chocolate ganache iced completely in a ponderous bittersweet chocolate glaze. This is pure ambrosia for the chocolate aficionado, as is a flourless torte known as "the mudslide," which deliciously incorporates a German chocolate coconut and pecan filling. White or dark chocolate mousses--airy and delicious--are also available, as are apple tarts, New York-style cheesecake and carrot cake. Presented on a dessert tray for your end-of-the-meal approbation, the final culinary word also happens to be one of the Solarium's best.

Nothing, however, will soften the blow of that final tab, which will leave you scratching your head in penniless wonder. It's a lot of money to pay for food that, for the most part, deserves no higher mark than "satisfactory," and frequently merits a "needs improvement."

I know the space is engaging, but it's hardly worth the present price of admission. Enough with this time-travel tour; I'm getting off at the next stop while I still have enough money left in my pocket to get home again.

The Solarium. 6444 E. Tanque Verde Road. 886-8186. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and diner nightly from 5 p.m. Full bar. All major credit cards. Menu items for lunch: $2.95-$12.75; dinner $2.95-$24.95 ("market price" items can be more). TW

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