SOLEIL, THE FASHIONABLE new Catalina Foothills restaurant, bears some resemblance to a newly minted penny. On the one hand, it's quite lovely to look at--polished, bright and strikingly luminous. Unfortunately, despite its million-dollar appearance, it's still only a penny.
Soleil's intrigue owes much to its location in a tasteful complex of art galleries and trendy shops near Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive. Its contemporary Santa Fe design and front-row vista of Tucson's city lights are a magnet for people seeking a sophisticated dining ambiance. Despite the sleek outward appearance, however, the quality of the experience--determined not only by ambiance but equally by service and menu--fails to follow through on its promise of greatness.
The first indication of trouble became evident as soon as we climbed the staircase to Soleil's second story. Before reaching the halfway point, we collided with a staggering wall of sound. As the most cacophonous restaurant in town, Soleil wins hands down. Imagine trying to converse with someone during a Metallica concert and you'll have some idea of the noise in Soleil's main dining room. By the end of the evening, my throat ached from shouting across the table.
More aggravation followed when we were presented with menus. The lighting in Soleil is muted to the point of obscure. Add to this gloomy scene a menu with faint, scripted printing, and you have a situation where even people with 20-20 vision will find themselves visually challenged. Attempts later in the evening to adjust the lighting were frantic and alarmingly strobe-like, which could hardly be considered an improvement.
Then there's the service at Soleil: erratic, with a sense that everyone wants to do a good job, but is impaired in some way. Whether the result of inexperience or understaffing, this cornerstone of fine dining never rose to the occasion. We waited for menus, then for wine, then for our appetizer, and so on throughout the entire meal. The kitchen may bear some responsibility for these interminable delays, but one thing is certain: if Soleil wants to compete with the other classy foothills dining venues, they'll have to do better. Much better.
The food at Soleil may be its strongest suit in a weak hand, but even here there are deficiencies.
The warm slices of Italian country bread presented at each table are delicious, but the spreads served alongside remain a bit of a mystery. A demitasse saucer contains a trio of black olive tapenade, herbed olive oil, and what appeared to be a thin red chile dip (no explanation was offered and the server wasn't certain himself). Each tiny taste was sufficiently savory, but the portions were so modest and crowded that the flavors blurred indistinguishably.
An appetizer of steamed black mussels ($8.75) constituted ghastly morsels of pungent, tough, fishy flesh in a meager broth of white wine, crème fraiche, shallots and garlic. A handful of thin-cut French fries oddly rested atop the shellfish, further adding to an impression of disappointing dissonance.
The hearts of romaine salad ($6.50), a Caesar-like creation of sliced tomato, avocado, capers, homestyle croutons, romaine lettuce and anchovy dressing was more successful. The croutons were hard to the point of stale, the dressing slightly oily and the taste of anchovy subdued, but otherwise this was our first success of the evening.
A New York strip steak au poivre, a daily special, sounded outstanding. I prepared my taste buds for a piquant wake-up call. Sadly, however, this was not to be. Soon after taking our order, our waitress returned to inform me the kitchen had run out of the special. Would I care for something else?
I substituted the petit filet mignon ($24) for the peppered steak, and endured a tepid taste experience. The meat was cooked to a beautiful medium-rare, but the tender filet failed to impart any distinctive flavor. A bordelaise sauce barely colored the bottom of the plate let alone act as a complement, while some promising wisps of frizzled leeks were similarly in short supply. A lovely layered potato au gratin wedge, and a variety of sautéed spring vegetables, proved the highlight of the platter.
More tasty by far was the linguini with gulf prawns ($24.50), a generous toss of fresh pasta, diced tomatoes, shallots, capers, garlic and a light brandy cream. The aroma and tangy flavor of the dish were exquisite, but I couldn't help but wonder about the mere three prawns that adorned the top of this gorgeous pasta heap. True, they were quite large, butäonly three? For this price at least a quartet is in order.
The meal ended on a glorious high note, with a dramatic chocolate bombe ($6.95) for dessert. Chocolate cake and chocolate ganache encased in an orb of bittersweet chocolate and served with candied orange peel and a heavenly Grand Marnier and mint sauce was an extravagant indulgence, and worth every sinful mouthful. If I ever go back to Soleil, I'll skip dinner and go straight to dessert.
It's too soon to write Soleil off completely, but clearly they need to invest as heavily inside as they have on the outside. There are simply too many other tempting options to waste time squinting at a faded menu, screaming at your dinner companion, enduring inattentive service, eating mediocre fare and paying top dollar for the privilege. Not even a fantastic view can compensate for all that.
Soleil. 3001 E. Skyline Drive. 299-3345. Open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Full bar. All major credit cards. Menu items: $4.25-$13 (lunch); and $5.50-$29 (dinner).