Sole Food

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Sole Food
12th and Market streets, in the Loews Hotel
215-231-7300
Credit cards accepted
Restrooms on ground floor
Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

When my husband and I have tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra or the theater, it’s also a good opportunity to review a Center City restaurant. But while we rode the bus into town on a recent cold evening, I realized I already had reviewed all of the restaurants near the Kimmel Center. So we got off the bus at 13th Street, one block from the Loews Hotel.

"I haven’t reviewed Sole Food," I said. "Let’s go."

It’s a funny name for a seafood restaurant, but our dinner marked my third visit to this lovely spot — which reminds me of The Rainbow Room in New York. A while ago, a friend met me at Sole Food for an early breakfast. There are few places where we can get an authentic French omelet, one that is plump, golden-yellow on the outside and creamy — the French call it "baveuse" — on the inside. The weekday breakfast buffet includes all the trimmings, such as a variety of fresh fruits, sausages and the like. Sunday is reserved for a classic �-la-carte brunch.

Several months ago, we met friends for drinks and bar fare at Sole Food. Wines by the glass are varied and reasonably priced. As a kid I loved Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Sole Food serves a grown-up version called Sole fingers ($12). We received a mound of these goodies prepared with fresh sole. They are quickly fried to a golden-brown and came with fried fennel and an aioli enhanced by lemon and saffron. Sole is a mild fish and the sauce was a perfect foil.

I usually don’t like gimmicks associated with culinary creations, but packing an old-fashioned popcorn box with popcorn shrimp ($12) was whimsical and downright cute. These were hot buttered popcorn shrimp, crisp and savory. They were served with homemade classic tartar sauce made even tastier by the inclusion of red bell peppers.

Now on to our recent dinner. We arrived around 5:30 p.m. because I sometimes get nervous about missing the overture or curtain. We opted to eat at the bar, where the bartender and staff took fine care of us. The bar at Sole Food is one of the prettiest in town, softly lit and enhanced by a cool blue color scheme. Several patrons were enjoying drinks and bar fare, although the dinner menu is also available. Martinis ($9) were just the right size and well-prepared. We nibbled on a complimentary snack mix — what I like to call kibbles and bits for humans — which included delicious spiced nuts.

The kitchen is finely orchestrated by chef Martin Gagne, a member of The James Beard Foundation. His menu is creatively impressive and includes a number of fresh fish and shellfish.

We received an old-fashioned fresh dinner roll and several homemade garlic flatbreads that were uncommonly good. The flatbread went well with Caesar salad ($10), a large mound of fresh, crisp hearts of romaine tossed in homemade dressing with the right touch of garlic. Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano was sprinkled on top, along with homemade croutons. The salad arrived in a deep white soup bowl.

I was in the mood for mussels, which I had not enjoyed in a restaurant for quite some time. They are usually offered in mundane red or white sauce. Gagne gives his patrons a choice of sauce including tomato-basil, curry-cilantro or wasabi-ginger. I received a copper bowl with a hinged lid filled with fresh, squeaky-clean farm-raised Prince Edward Island mussels ($8) in a rich, Thai-inspired curry-cilantro sauce. These mollusks were plump and the shells went into the hinged lid.

Since we both like scallops, we were intrigued by the scallop trio ($14), which arrived on a large square plate. Large diver scallops were used in this dish. One was fashioned into a ravioli, another simply roasted with an Asian-like sauce on the side, and the third was wrapped in very thin slices of potato and quickly saut�ed. I liked the contrast of tastes and textures here; no one flavor dominated any of the others. Each scallop was perfectly cooked, still translucent inside.

I sometimes pine for old-fashioned fare such as steak tartar. I have not seen this raw beef dish on a menu in ages. Gage took an interesting cue when he created Tar Tar Tar ($15). As soon as I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to sample it. He is well aware of the popularity of sushi bars and the impact of South American dishes found on so many restaurant menus.

I received a long white rectangular plate. Three square dishes sat on top. One was filled with top-quality sushi-grade ahi tuna, which was sliced very thin and topped with sliced ginger. The meatiness of tuna contrasted with the delicate slices of oil-rich top-quality salmon that was piled into another square plate. Finally, South America came alive in the scallops ceviche — sweet sea scallops that were marinated in fresh lime juice. Three very different fish, three very different tastes and textures that made me so content, I quickly forgot old-fashioned steak tartar. Each portion was most generous.

Since I was enjoying a raw fish dinner, Edward opted for a cooked one. Turbot ($24) was one the specials, and it can sometimes be found in fine restaurants. It is a mild white-fleshed meaty fish found in European waters and in the Mediterranean. Gage took brioche and processed it to a fine crumb. He coated the turbot with the crumbs and baked it in the oven. He included some tiny New Zealand coquilles, which are tiny clams in their shells and smaller than a dime. Fresh, nicely seasoned spinach came with this platter. Although we both liked the fish, we thought the sauce was too sweet.

We sipped a glass of Bonny Doone Pacific Rim Riesling ($8), one of my favorite white wines. This one is on the dry side and drank well with our dinner. A nice variety of half-bottles also is offered.

Service was excellent and our flatware changed for each course. I particularly like the choices here. You can have a salad and burger or a full dinner. But ingredients make the meal, and the ones used at Sole Food are fine, indeed.

Three tips of the toque to Sole Food.