Solera – The Perfect Blend


When hospitality couple Nick Potts and Chloe Ashman relocated from Australia to Tauranga they settled in quickly but they missed the casual wine bars they’d known and loved in Melbourne – the intimate little places with great atmosphere and cracking food and wine.

They did something about it, and at Easter last year they opened their 47-seater wine bar Solera, in Mt Maunganui’s main street.“We wanted to create something where we would like to eat,” says Nick, “something with an open kitchen, no pretentiousness, just good food and wine. And fun.”

Solera occupies a long, narrow space reinvented with comfy green leather banquette seating and tables along one wall, and an open kitchen and bar on the other. There are high stools at the chef’s pass where diners can watch the kitchen theatre close up (dinner and show), and there is a pretty good view from the banquettes as well.

Solera’s kitchen stars are a rustic wood-fired oven from which much of the food emerges, and head chef Neil Sapitula, who has worked in three of Asia’s top 50 restaurants. He joined Nick and Chloe at the Mount after a period at Pasture in Auckland.

Nick, who is Australian, is a trained restaurant manager, and he met chef Chloe, from Gisborne, when she was doing a stint on the Gold Coast. They later worked together in top restaurants in other parts of Australia including Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide, and Nick’s home city of Melbourne (where he started in hospo at a pizza place as a 16-year-old before studying at La Trobe University).

Nowadays Nick runs Solera and Chloe is hands-on at home with their toddler Oscar, 2, and new baby Archie, and they’re enjoying a lifestyle block near Katikati that has cows, pigs, chickens and a herb garden planted for the wine bar kitchen.

On this Tuesday visit to Solera, Nick and chef Neil are smiling about a hat-trick of titles they’ve won at the recent Bay of Plenty Hospitality Association Awards: outstanding new establishment, outstanding restaurant, and outstanding chef (for Neil). It is a great result in just over a year of operation. “We’re very proud of this place,” says Nick.

He says Solera has a hospo professional in each of its key roles, and this is a strong part of its success. Tim Lewis is their experienced restaurant manager and sommelier, he is the meeter and greeter, and master of smooth service.

Harish Mesta is the bartender, conjuring cocktails and the like. Harish does his own spirits infusions, makes syrups and also makes Solera’s zero proof gin for mocktails. His cocktail list includes cold weather comforts such as Coconut Meringue with charred coconut tequila, limoncello and meringue, and a Winter Delight of spiced rum, honey, Pernod and apple juice. There are also classics such as Negroni, Singapore Sling, Pisco Sour, and more.

Nick writes the wine list, which focuses on small New Zealand producers. “We enjoy all the popular grape varietals,” he says, “but our true love is to showcase the lesser-known varietals and blends.”

He has trawled New Zealand from north to south in his search for a mix of old favourites and newcomers: a syrah from venerable Hawke’s Bay winery Stonecroft is listed beside a syrah from the lesser-known Pakiaka, a small Waiheke Island vineyard. And likewise a pinot noir from the boutique Johner Estate in Wairarapa is alongside the instantly recognisable Felton Road Bannockburn pinot noir from Central Otago. And so on.

Then there is the food, devised by Neil, who is backed in the kitchen by sous chef David Bryson and junior chef Leah Knotts. Neil says the menu is printed daily, often with small tweaks, sometimes with major changes. Most dishes involve some cooking on the open fire, maybe a slow-cooked stew, fire-roasted brussels sprouts, smoked raw kingfish, grilled leeks or wood-roasted duck.

The fireplace was made by Tauranga firm Authentic Oven, and is fuelled by oak wood for heat and mānuka for flavour. Neil describes it as modern hearth cooking. “It is a very good fit in this kitchen.”

Seasonal ingredients are carefully sourced throughout the Bay of Plenty, and the rest of the country. Neil was pleased to find an octopus supplier recently in Gisborne; he’s been serving it grilled with harissa and cumin puree, tamarillo and yuzu.

He and the team welcome questions from customers as they watch the kitchen in action. He says the key to anopen kitchen is to be highly prepped and organised in advance of opening hours, and to stay calm at the coalface.

The menu has snacks, small plates, vegetable plates and large plates, everything is designed to be shared, and there are also take-home packs plus a set-price chef’s menu for a table to enjoy a selection of Solera favourites. Shared plates are a must for Nick, they encourage conversation and conviviality: “When Chloe and I go out for a meal, we want to try everything.”

Nick’s personal Solera favourites include the Egg & Duck snack; Smoked Raw Kingfish and Venison Tataki in the small plates, and Wood-Roasted Duck in the large plates. Smoked Cauliflower, from the vegetable plates, has won a huge – and somewhat unexpected – following among customers.

Nick truly rates the flavour that Neil packs into the food. “It makes him different; every mouthful has well-balanced flavours.”

He says Solera has been driven by care and consideration from the get-go: “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it properly.”

Words Denise Irvine, Images Brydie Thompson

165 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui


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