63 Summer St. (Route 3A), Kingston
Hours: Sunday and Monday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations accepted for any size party, except for six-person minimum on Saturdays.
In the restaurant business, eight years is a lifetime, especially for an upscale establishment well beyond the city limits. So it was a pleasant surprise to find Solstice nearly full on a recent Saturday night, eight years after John and Hollie Cataldi opened the restaurant in the former Kingston train station.
In that time, the menu has become considerably more adventurous, said John Cataldi, also the executive chef. "We had to be very careful with that first menu,'' he said. "It was very traditional. Now we're using ingredients and techniques that would have been considered avant-garde in 2003.''
Spicy tuna nachos are a case in point. "There's no way I could have sold that eight years ago,'' Cataldi said. "Now it's one of our best sellers.''
An Asian influence makes its way into several dishes, such as a pork ribs appetizer with spicy Mongolian barbecue sauce, and seared yellowfin tuna with shrimp fried rice and spring rolls.
We tried the tuna nachos ($12) on the recommendation of our server. Crisp wontons were topped with tuna tartare and wakame (seaweed), and drizzled decoratively with siracha aioli and sweet soy. The bite-size nachos had a real kick, and we were impressed that despite the moist tuna and the sauces, the wontons remained crisp.
We also liked an appetizer of flash-fried calamari ($11) with fried lemon rings and sweet Thai chili sauce. The pieces of calamari were light and greaseless, and the tart lemon and sweet sauce played off one another nicely.
A panzanella salad ($10) - crusty bread mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted peppers, pickled onions, and homemade mozzarella in a vinaigrette - was less innovative but still tasty.
Duck in some form has been on the menu since the beginning, Cataldi said. Ours was a crisp duck breast with duck leg confit ($27), making for an interesting mix of textures. The cherry sauce was richly sweet but not sugary, and toasted pistachios and arugula added a nice crunch.
Steak frites ($22) delivered a tender, peppery grilled skirt steak. The hand-cut truffle fries were positively addictive, but perhaps a tad salty.
A striped bass special ($28) - the creation of sous-chef John Ricardo - was meltingly moist, and served with homemade chorizo, littleneck clams, and creamy parmesan grits.
For dessert we shared the Southern-fried peach pie ($8), which was lighter than fried dough and heavier than a turnover. Its best feature was the homemade peach ice cream. With a full-time pastry chef, Solstice makes all its desserts, Cataldi said, including ice creams in such tantalizing flavors as Turkish coffee, malted milk chocolate, and cinnamon.
Our waitress was excellent, freely sharing her knowledge of the menu and accommodating our desire to sample all the dishes. But we are just old-fashioned enough to believe that servers should not start clearing dishes while anyone at the table is still eating. Someday I'll get up the gumption to make that request, but I wish I didn't have to.
The old train station is a warm, inviting space with lots of exposed brick, soothing earth tones, and lighting that's soft but still sufficient for reading the menu. The interior is broken up into several small dining rooms, which creates intimacy and reduces the noise level.
Cataldi grew up in the restaurant business. His father opened Nanina's in Boston in 1966 and owned five restaurants by the time Cataldi was 20. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Cataldi worked in restaurants in California and on Nantucket.
He doesn't mind injecting a bit of whimsy into the menu. "The food is pretty serious,'' Cataldi said. "But we try not to take ourselves too seriously.''
Check out his take on the mandated warning about consuming undercooked fish and shellfish: "The Kingston Board of Health would like to inform you that consuming raw or undercooked foods may in fact end your life. The chef would like to inform you that overcooking fresh seafood and meat is a crying shame.''