If you've been curious about visiting a Somalian restaurant but didn't know where to begin, boy do I have a can't-miss tip. Sparkling clean and stylish inside and whipping up generous plates of inexpensive yet delicious - even exciting - chow, Solay Bistro outpaces most of its competition. This place is on the special side.
Cooking impressive meals in the Columbus Square shopping center since May, Solay's interior is far prettier than what you'd probably expect from a modest mom 'n' popper. It's got plenty of pleasant, non-figurative art smartly displayed on pale walls. But the most prominent eye-catcher is a graphic black and slate-gray tile pattern inlaid upon the middle of Solay's slatted blond wooden floor.
In effect rhyming with those decorative tiles are curvy black chairs and black tablecloths. Still, nice as that mod design is, it's what's placed atop those dark tablecloths that makes Solay so praiseworthy.
The place's cuisine, which is equally veggie-friendly and meaty-heavy, mixes together bits and pieces of several culinary traditions. So Somalian, Middle Eastern and Ethiopian dishes rub elbows with potent Indian influences.
Expect a good amount of stewy, curry-type preparations plus a few excellent homemade breads fleshed out with rice, couscous and so on. And expect sit-up-and-take-notice flavors, most of them more familiar than exotic.
Take, for instance, Solay's terrific Vegetable Soup ($3.50). Both inspired and comforting, its meat-free broth got a lot of mileage from long-cooked garlic, onion and cabbage. Lending soothing body were pureed lentils and lumps of potato; accentuating its brightness was a background of cilantro.
I also loved the samosa-like Sambusas ($3). A trio of brittle, flaky, turnover-like pastry shells encased a gentle, oniony and herby ground beef mixture (a vegetable version's available, too). Like another recommended starter here - falafel - these were ungreasy, aromatic and partnered with a ferociously hot wizzed-jalapeno sauce I was quite fond of.
Entrees were even better, such as the verbally undersold Mixed Platter ($12). A massive serving of meat (I went with marginally chewy, bone-in goat) stewed in a knockout curry sauce tasting of the Indian condiment called "mixed pickle" was served Ethiopian style, i.e. above a blanket of spongy, fermented bread.
Also on the bread plate (Solay's version is mild and approachable, even for novices) were piles of spinach expertly cooked with spuds plus sweetly sauteed cabbage with onions.
Those simple, excellent veggies likewise accompanied a block of standard salmon ($10). The fish dish was made special by a bright and rich curry sauce as well as buttery, brown-spotted, multi-layered chapati bread.
That same great chapati - a ton of it - was chopped and drenched in a terrific tomato and cilantro-enlivened, curry-type sauce, and this served as the starch for a highly recommended Sanuunad-Sugo ($11). This one-plate smorgasbord also came with a zesty tomatoey stew (zucchini, eggplant, peppers and more) plus good (surprise!) stewed chicken.
Another killer choose-your-meat-and-starch stew was Sugaar ($10). My piled-high serving of mild tomato and green pepper-tasting diced beef went great with fluffy and green peppery couscous.
Carnivores and vegetarians alike will take much delight from the rich and creamy Green Lentils ($8). Here, coconut milk tied together and smoothed out spikier garlic, cilantro and tomatoey accents.
For dessert, the homey, moist and dense Somalian poundcake is a good choice. If you have to wait on it a while, as you might with all things at Solay, it's worth it to support this hard-working, really great, family-style operation.