A la Carte
Starters: £3.50 - £16.00 (includes sharing portions)
Mains: £12.50 - £23.00
Cooking 8/10 | Service 5/5 | Flavour 4/5 | Value 4/5
Living south of the border sometimes has its advantages, and while some of the easing of lockdown restrictions on ‘super Saturday’ were perhaps ill advised (Drunk People Cannot Socially Distance read one deadline the next day - no s**t!) I, for one, was very happy to be able to enjoy a meal in a restaurant for the first time in several months. My partner and I took a weekend’s sojourn to Southampton, to stay at his brother’s place, socially distancing by some 450 miles, as his brother’s been spending lockdown with family in Scotland. Not knowing the first thing about the restaurant scene down there, I booked a table at an Italian with good online reviews and a decent looking menu in the city’s theatre district.
Given restaurants are operating at a reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, booking is very much a must in this strange sort-of-post-lockdown place we’re in. I’d anticipated less tables out, but then realised that most restaurants don’t have spare space for very much, let alone a whole bunch of tables and chairs. So while it was fully booked, the restaurant remained half empty, and you can see why certain places where walk-ins are common have been sitting giant teddy bears and creepy mannequins at unused tables. Before taking our order, the waitress (somewhat apologetically) took our postcode and telephone numbers. This is mandatory for all restaurants and bars in England, and probably will be in Scotland too when the time comes, so that it’s possible to ‘track and trace’ any potential cases of Covid. I’m very pleased to report that at time of writing, we’ve not received a call.
Soleto Bistro is a classic, classy Italian brasserie which specialises in seafood, with a range of daily specials alongside a well balanced menu. We opted to share a plate of Affettato Misto - a selection of Italian cured meats with olives, gherkins, grana padano cheese and toasted ciabatta - as a starter. In retrospect this was a bit of a foolish move, choosing our first dish in a restaurant in several months to be something that’s assembled rather than cooked. Whatever - that didn’t stop it being delicious. Considering there were two of us, we tried to order the larger size, but were advised that the smaller one would be enough for two, and indeed it was. Copious slices of prosciutto and salami were delightfully off-set by tangy gherkins, though the dish could have done with a bit more cheese than the shavings of grana padano which topped them.
Since seafood’s a thing here, I decided to try something from their specials board as a main, and went for the king prawn linguine with garlic and chilli. At first glance I was a tad disappointed to see a couple of lonely langoustines sitting atop a bed of pasta, but as I dove into the dish I discovered a vast number of plump, juicy butterflied king prawns. The heat from the chilli could have been a little stronger for my taste, but the garlic. Oh my goodness the garlic! Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are the most special, and this was one of them. Cooked to a mellow perfection, the rich, buttery flavour was one I could never achieve in my own kitchen, and reminded me why people bother to go out to eat in the first place. My partner’s Italian Pig pizza was very nice, with a thin base, and the pancetta bacon lending a lovely smokiness to the sauce.
We didn’t have dessert, and looking online I can’t see what they might have been. We were offered a menu though, so I’m guessing they are changing specials, and judging by the quality of the meal, probably very good too. I should have looked at the menu for review purposes, but due to lockdown my restaurant critiquing skills are a little rusty. Forgive me. What we did have, though, was wine, and it’s in this area that my one main criticism lies. While the wine list featured a perfectly decent selection of Italian wines, the cheapest one on offer was £28, which I feel is a bit steep for a mid-restaurant. We ordered a bottle of Sicilian Frappato, which I imagined would have been light bodied and a bit thin, thus being an OK match with the prawns and fine with everything else. I was actually very pleasantly surprised by its quality. Though light bodied, it had a far greater depth of flavour than predicted, and was smooth, supple and well rounded. So although we ended up spending more on wine than we might have, I didn’t feel ripped off.
While post lockdown dining may not be exactly as was - no waiters squeezing by snugly packed tables, large groups of friends getting progressively merry as the night goes on, or cosy first dates, it was wonderful to once again enjoy a meal prepared with the talent and expertise of a professional chef, and served by attentive staff in atmospheric surroundings. It was also nice not to have to do the washing up!
Thanks again to Miranda Heggie, who is fast becoming a regular in this blog. Her columns have proved to be among the most popular. Miranda is a writer and arts administrator who spends her time between Scotland and the Midlands. She is a Project Manager for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and writes classical music features and reviews for The Herald, The List and The Arts Desk. With a passion for food as well as music, whilst studying Miranda worked part time for I. J. Mellis Cheese and Harvey Nichols Foodmarket and Wine Shop. She also writes for The List's annual Eating and Drinking Guide.