Southern Sol 

Jason McConnell plants another flag in Franklin’s culinary map. This time, the flavor is Mexican.

When our server recommended the tableside guacamole at Sol as “the best guacamole in Franklin,” we could have mistaken her geographically stingy superlative for damningly faint praise—had we not been familiar with the guac across the street at Red Pony.
When our server recommended the tableside guacamole at Sol as “the best guacamole in Franklin,” we could have mistaken her geographically stingy superlative for damningly faint praise—had we not been familiar with the guac across the street at Red Pony. But Sol’s sister restaurant set a high standard, which made us eager to see if chef Jason McConnell, who owns both restaurants, had indeed outdone himself at his new upscale Mexican eatery at the corner of Fourth and Main.

Sure it’s McConnell’s guacamole recipe, but Eva Salinas deserves much of the credit for Franklin’s alleged finest. A petite woman—with impressive muscles in her right arm—Salinas actually makes the stuff, which, yes, is most likely the finest in Franklin, Nashville and counties beyond.

As the dedicated guacamolera on the dinner shift, Salinas has her work cut out for her, navigating a table on wheels through a snug layout of tables for 180, and grinding avocados for virtually everyone in the room. (Think about it: Who’s not going to order guacamole at a restaurant reputed to have the town’s finest?)

As fast as she worked the crowded room on a recent Saturday night, I couldn’t help but calculate how long it would take Salinas to get to us. Even if it took less than two minutes to scoop the avocado, spoon in diced tomatoes, pink onions, cilantro, serrano chiles and kosher salt, squeeze a fresh lime into the mixture and then grind it all up in a molcajete (lava stone bowl), there were still half-a-dozen tables ahead of us.

My hungry mind began to wander from the tempting menu of margaritas to the dismal science of economics and, more specifically, to the absurdity of paying $8.50 for guacamole and chips for two. But as I watched the cart—loaded with alligator-skinned fruits and other colorful ingredients—weave in and out of tables around me, I knew that I would pay even more than that for my own rustic basalt bowl filled with soft green peaks of guacamole.

How much more would I pay, I wondered. For the sake of argument, if Chef McConnell stepped onto the mezzanine overlooking the main dining room and announced that Salinas had been suddenly crippled with carpal tunnel syndrome and no longer would be able to manhandle the mortar and pestle, and that there was a limited amount of fresh guacamole to be divided among the highest bidders in the room, how high would I go? Ten bucks? Fifteen?

Then our cocktails arrived, shattering my reverie of supply and demand and turning my attention to an $11 margarita and a frozen mojito whose magical texture—somewhere between slushy ice and a cold soup of super-fine sugar—vanished upon impact, in a frosty whisper of mint and lime.

When our guacamole arrived, it was certainly worth the wait: a generous bowl piled high with sturdy mounds of fresh, chunky avo and bright with flavors of lime and salt. My only regrets were that so much of the precious concoction was lost in the porous, gritty texture of the molcajete and that I would probably lacerate my tongue if I tried to lick it. (On a subsequent visit, a couple of leaves of lettuce placed across the bottom of the bowl solved that problem.)

Like Red Pony across the road, Sol blends contemporary urban flair with sultry warmth—a fusion that mirrors the hybrid country-politan style of many of Franklin’s residents. Inside Sol, which formerly housed Sandy’s Downtown Grille, a vibrant palette of gold, yellow, red and blue sets a backdrop for murals and Latin American icons including crosses, masks, suns and the occasional small portrait of artist Frida Kahlo. Large drum lamps hang from high ceilings of beadboard painted metallic silver, shining warm, amber light onto the colorful room.

Also like its predecessor across the street, Sol reflects McConnell’s well-traveled appetite for global flavors and fresh ingredients. A native of tiny Rives, Tenn., and a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., McConnell came to Nashville in 1999 and trained under chef Margot McCormack at F. Scott’s before leading that kitchen, then headed up a microbrewery in Fayetteville, Ark., before opening Red Pony last year with his wife Fran. To create a menu for Sol, McConnell called on his own travel experiences—in Mexico, as well as in upscale Mexican eateries in the U.S. He also pulled in the culinary talents of native-Mexican sous chefs Esteban Cabrera, Bernardo Ramirez and Austin Garcia, who contribute ideas from their family recipes.

While many of the items on the menu sound familiar—enchiladas, quesadillas and tamales, for example—Sol’s delivery of Mexican-inspired cuisine is far from ordinary. Among our favorite entrées was shrimp Herradura, which could be described as Mexican shrimp and grits. On a long rectangular plate, a half-dozen gently sautéed shrimp straddled a hill of fresh masa, a grit-like dish, which McConnell makes with polenta, homemade corn stock and fresh creamed corn. The result is a bed of sweet, light grain layered with textures of polenta, corn, posole (hominy), peppers and tomatoes. Topped with a light sauce of tequila and cream—just enough to hold the masa together but not enough to drown the meal—the entrée was simple, comforting and beautiful.

The surprisingly light masa also stole the show in the lomito in mole poblano, which plated tender and smoky grilled pork tenderloin with a corn husk filled with masa and a rich pool of thick mole, redolent with earthy flavors of chocolate, fruits, breads and nuts.

McConnell delivered a creative spin on oysters Rockefeller, baked with homemade chorizo, garlic, peppers, cream and spinach. And on one visit, the tostada de ceviche—which McConnell usually prepares with grouper—substituted small buttery scallops, mixed with tomato, chiles, lime and cilantro, for a tangy, fresh prelude to the meal.

On a second visit, at lunch, we sampled the fish tacos, with grouper lightly fried in masa flour and topped with shredded cabbage, posole and chile mayonnaise. While all the elements were executed well—sweet and tender fish, flavorful sauce and soft hand-cranked tortillas pocked with charred bubbles—the combination lacked the brightness of lime or green salsa. Furthermore, the side of undercooked green rice looked as if it had been scraped from the bottom of a cold pot and plated as an afterthought.

On the other hand, the refried beans that accompanied the tender and flavorful steak al carbon exceeded any expectations for the ubiquitous Tex-Mex side item. When we had gobbled down the smoky grilled steak, wrapped in a fresh tortilla with salsa verde, we idly tasted the beans before the server could clear the plates. A far cry from the run-of-the-mill refried splat that so often fills the empty space on a combo plate, McConnell’s rich “puerco beans” turned out to be studded with spicy pork and would have been worth ordering à la carte.

On our dinner visit, we had decided to save dessert for a subsequent lunch trip, but when we asked about the cinnamon fried ice cream rolled in toasted almonds and coconut, the strawberry crepes with caramel and the chocolate-ancho pot de crème, all of which we had looked forward to, we learned that only the coconut tres leches cake is available at lunch. Sol’s version of the traditional dessert was a coarse sponge cake soaked with cream and coconut and condensed milks, which somehow avoided the common pitfall of soggy, icky sweetness, and left us wanting more.

And speaking of wanting more, on our return trip we ordered a round of guacamole almost immediately upon being seated, just in case there was a long line ahead of us. But we didn’t need to. At lunch, the guac is all pre-made, so there’s no wait. (Maybe Salinas undergoes physical therapy for her right bicep during the day.) Still, as I nibbled on a perfectly flaky housemade tortilla chip with a cool dollop of bright, salty avocado, I couldn’t help but return to the quandary of supply and demand. Sure, $8.50 is a lot to charge for a bowl of guacamole—especially without a bidding war. But in the case of Sol’s tableside version, it’s worth it.

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