The setting at Solo Bistro is distinctly modern: Blonde tables are bookended by marigold- and sky blue-colored chairs; area rugs by Angela Adams adorn the brick walls; and Scandinavian flatware grace the tables.
Owner Will Neilson credits his wife and co-owner Pia Neilson, a native of Denmark. “The Danish aesthetic for life – beautiful simplicity – informs pretty much everything we do,” says Will, “and there is an appreciation for incorporating modern functionality in the infrastructure of the past.”
But don’t be fooled. The food here is not Danish—it’s New England bistro fare – yet it does bear that same philosophy of beautiful simplicity. Subtle flourishes create light counterpoints to bold flavors. The plating is creative, but not fussy. And the flavors: simple, clean, and thoughtful.
Pia tells me that during the summer, when the sidewalks are swelling with tourists, their three dining rooms are packed, and sometimes there is a line out the door. On this frigid March evening, photographer Ted Axelrod and I have lucked out: there is no line, instead only the low hum of conversation and music rising up to meet it. It feels like the kind of place you can relax into, and that’s just what we do.
The main room is open and bright, and offers glimpses into the flow of the open kitchen. A second room, also on the street-level, doubles as a jazz venue every Friday. The basement dining room is small, intimate, and grotto-like, with old, exposed stonewalls that anchor the newness of everything within. This is my kind of setting, and we find our place at the cement-top bar.
When the Neilsons opened Solo Bistro back in 2005, they admit they did not have a grand vision or mission statement. “We just wanted to offer the kind of food that we wanted to eat,” says Pia. That simple formula of good food, coupled with Pia’s keen design sensibility, have been the ingredients of Solo Bistro’s success. Folks sitting nearby tell me that one of the things they’re known for is the boar bacon burger, but then our plates of salmon and grilled duck have arrived. Even though our entrees are sitting in front of us, we cannot stop eating the bread – a lightly seasoned focaccia made in-house and served alongside a butter of the day.
Chef Ray Franklyn articulates the menu in a way that honors both his own creativity and the provenance of the food. They use local purveyors whenever possible, and highlight the bounty of Maine in everything from produce and protein right down to their thoughtfully curated selection of beer, which includes brews from Allagash and Maine Beer Company.
As we dig into our entrees, it becomes evident that a joie de vivre is very much alive in Chef Franklyn’s food. You can’t help but smile with each bite. Our miso sake salmon is perfectly done, and accented with toasted sesame seeds, baby bok choy, and a beautiful tamari glaze. Our knives slice through the duck breast with ease – it is grilled just until tender, and served alongside a confit of bone meat. We also try a salad of chopped kale with soft egg that is dressed with lemon Caesar, and sprinkled with pecorino cheese and macadamia nuts – a beautiful touch both visually and texturally.
It is my personal rule to order dessert no matter how full I happen to be – and I am full, as the portions here are substantial – so we decide to end the evening with a balsamic poached pear. The pear itself is good enough, but the resounding notes that really make us smile are the light drizzle of pepita crisp and a most divine swathe of bittersweet chocolate. Like everything about Solo Bistro, it is balanced, simple, and an absolute delight.
128 Front St. | Bath | 207.443.3373 | solobistro.com