Restaurant Insider: Who Keeps the Wine Flowing and Specials Cooking at Sola Bistro?

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Restaurant Insider: Who Keeps the Wine Flowing and Specials Cooking at Sola Bistro?

On this sunny Tuesday morning in late April, Tig and Art walked past the blue patio umbrellas of the Italian bakery and head straight inside, greeted like family by the owners. La Casa Del Pane is a well-loved, homey spot on St. Pete Beach for pastries, coffee, and slow coastal mornings. For Tig and Art, the owner-chef duo behind Sola Bistro and Wine Bar, the bakery is also their go-to for the baguettes they serve at their restaurant.

Baguettes from La Casa Del Pane
The baguettes that Tim and Art bought from La Casa Del Pane.

Art and I settled down at a table as Tig walked purposefully to the back, selecting the bread for the day. On his way back, he asked me for the seventh time whether I’d like a coffee or a cannoli. He reminded me of an uncle of mine, or rather, anyone in my huge Indian family, and their insistence on feeding me. It’s how they showed love, and although I politely declined Tig’s offer, I already felt welcome.

Finally, settled at one of the high-top tables with a shared bottle of sparkling water, I explained to Tig and Art what I am about to explain to you.

This is the first installment of my debut column here on St. Petersburg Foodies, where I will be profiling the most interesting and exciting individuals in our city’s food scene. Although you can find more about me in my author bio at the bottom of the page, I still wanted to say hi!

So, hi there, my name is Mahika, and I was recently invited by Kevin to join the St. Pete Foodies team. I am a Journalism student at USF St. Pete, and food and writing have always been two of my greatest passions. When Kevin offered me a column, I knew I wanted to do some sort of human-interest writing. What better, I thought, than to give our readers a behind-the-scenes look at the people behind our beloved eateries?

Tig and Art
Tig and Art, owner and head chef of Sola Bistro and Wine Bar

That brings me to Tigran ‘Tig’ Kachaturyan and Artem ‘Art’ Kucherenko, the duo behind one of St. Pete Beach’s most respected and loved restaurants, Sola Bistro & Wine Bar. I wanted this column to be personal and exclusive, to deliver a perspective that would be impossible to have unless you were actually with the chefs as they worked, shadowing them as they went about their days. When I asked Tig and Art if they’d be up for exactly that, they were incredibly welcoming.

And that’s how I found myself chatting with them on this Tuesday morning. I spent almost eight hours at the restaurant with them, split over two days, learning all the ins and outs of their story.

“The restaurant business doesn’t discriminate, whether you speak English or whether you have certain skills or not, you can still get started,” said head chef Art. “The restaurant business invites everybody.”

And that’s how Tig and Art met in 2006 – working at a now-closed Russian restaurant that was not far from Sola’s current location, unsure of exactly where their lives were going but figuring it out while picking up restaurant shifts. Art did everything from bussing tables to washing dishes to cooking, while Tig bartended on the weekends and stuck to front-of-house tasks.

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Tig taking a photo of the food during service
Tig taking a photo of the food during service, to keep Sola’s instagram updated.

When the owner introduced the two to each other, they quickly realized that they were from the same city in Russia and had attended the same university just at different times. ‘Small world’ moments never cease to amaze me, and the three of us had a good laugh about this one.

“It’s funny because by degree, we’re both teachers,” said Tig. Both he and Art hold degrees in education of foreign languages from Piatigorsk Linguistic University, Russia. “But in a way, we’re educating people when it comes to some foods, why you should eat them and the way you should eat them.”

Once they’d met, Art and Tig began going to markets together and testing recipes in the hopes of starting their own place someday. Food wasn’t in the cards for them previously, but it was something that just sort of fell into place once they moved to Florida.

“We wanted our own place, our own restaurant where we would do things the way we think is right,” said Art.

This chance came in 2015 when Café Luna, the restaurant that used to be where Sola stands today, closed. It was the perfect size and location, and Tig and Art grabbed the opportunity.

Sola exterior
Sola’s exterior.

Today, Sola Bistro and Wine Bar is widely considered a gem of Gulf Boulevard. While it may not be the most aesthetically appealing to the Instagram-age, Sola’s classy wooden tables, dimly lit and wine-stocked bar and quaint patio seating lends itself to a different demographic. Namely, to those seeking the elegant dining experience of a long European dinner affair. You will find inviting people, food made with care, and an impressive wine list at this restaurant.

The rack of lamb, one of the entrée specials on Saturday, Apr. 27.
The rack of lamb, one of the entrée specials on Saturday, Apr. 27.

“From day one, we’ve tried new things. But here’s the thing, there’s normal stuff on the menu for normal people, but we take pride in doing it right,” said Tig, when asked if they’ve always been known for their daring dishes.

Art plating the Bucatini alla Carbonara, a regular menu item that they take pride in making the proper way. No cream!
Art plating the Bucatini alla Carbonara, a regular menu item that they take pride in making the proper way. No cream!

Like he said, the regular menu includes classics like a Carbonara and a Filet Mignon, but what they’re known for is the rotating specials. “The specials, here’s where we will play. We’ll go from brains, testicles, bone marrow, whatever we can get our hands on,” Tig said.

Art explaining the specials on Saturday, Apr. 27
Art explaining the specials on Saturday, Apr. 27

The restaurant is only closed on Sundays, and Wednesday is the duo’s designated shopping day. Mazzaro’s for various items, local produce stands and Restaurant Depot are top spots. Here, at around 1pm on a Tuesday, Art is prepping some freshly delivered triggerfish for the specials.

Art filleting triggerfish. When a fish is delivered to them and is as clean as this one, Art loves to offer it in its purest form. This day, it was available raw ('crudo') as a starter. I tasted some of the raw fish with olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sea, and ti was truly delicious. The taste was mellow and smooth.
Art filleting triggerfish. When a fish is delivered to them as clean as this one, Art loves to offer it in its purest form. This day, it was available raw (‘crudo’) as a starter. I tasted some of the raw fish with olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel, and it was truly delicious. The taste was mellow and smooth.
Here's what triggerfish looks like! Art told me that it's local to Florida, and while Restaurant Depot has an amazing selection of fresh seafood according to Tig, they have 'a guy' who will alert them if there's some exciting, local catches available.
Here’s what triggerfish looks like! Art told me that it’s local to Florida, and while Restaurant Depot has an amazing selection of fresh seafood according to Tig, they have ‘a guy’ who will alert them if there’s some exciting, local catches available.

“It depends on my projects, because a lot of times we do time-consuming projects like terrines or braising lamb, so for those things I come like 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.,” said Art, when asked about when his days typically start.

He usually focuses on the specials as they’re his brainchild, and the 2-3 other cooks on the team handle the regular menu. At 5 p.m. on a Saturday night, everyone is in and the kitchen starts to buzz into motion.

Art posing behind one of the appetizer specials, called 'Parda' an Armenian dish made of lamb heart, kidney, and liver then wrapped in caul fat.
Art posing behind one of the appetizer specials, called ‘Parda’ – an Armenian dish made of lamb heart, kidney and liver, then wrapped in caul fat.

First on the agenda is Armenian coffee for the whole team. Made traditionally, drank quickly.

Turkish coffee made for the team. The small pot with the handle in the background is called a 'cezve', and the coffee is made from very finely ground beans without filtering. It's dark and strong, like a shot of espresso.
Armenian coffee made for the team. The small pot with the handle in the background is called a ‘cezve’, and the coffee is made from very finely ground beans without filtering. It’s dark and strong, like a shot of espresso.

Tig takes his position behind the bar, as the ‘wine guy’. The atmosphere at the bar is truly special. Tig and Art mentioned that it has been slow lately, but even so, there were at least three patrons seated at the bar almost immediately after opening. While Tig spoke with Julian, the head server of French origin, one of the women at the bar called out to Tig to ask if he remembered what he recommended to her last time.

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The first wine I tried, on Tig's recommendation. I adored this - smooth, fizzy, just the right bit of tang.
The first wine I tried, on Tig’s recommendation. I adored this – smooth, fizzy, just the right bit of tang.

It’s this quality that makes Sola so special. As the hours passed and service started to heat up on that Saturday night, Tig remained at the bar, serving up good-natured conversation and expertly recommended wine. I saw multiple people come in and head straight to the bar, even as they ate full meals, greeting Tig with the familiarity of old friends.

Tig pouring the same bottle of garganega, this time for his team and I to enjoy.
Tig pouring the same bottle of garganega, this time for his team and I to enjoy.

I was welcomed into their club with open arms, and I sat sandwiched between diners at the bar for a while, as two customers happily told me stories of their many times eating at Sola.

Diners mid-meal at the bar.
Diners mid-meal at the bar.

Susan Shafi, vascular surgeon and frequent visitor at Sola, told me they have a secret menu for the regulars. Tig made an expression that seemed to say that perhaps they shouldn’t advertise it, but the two laughed and agreed that it should be in this article. There’s a secret Cacio e Pepe button, apparently.

“They cook with pomegranate, that’s the reason I come here,” she said, joyfully downing her steak and telling me how pomegranate is difficult to cook with, but Sola does it perfectly.

Shrimp and Polenta, one of their regular appetizers, captured seconds after it was plated and put on the pass for service.
Shrimp and Polenta, one of their regular appetizers, captured seconds after it was plated and put on the pass for service. No pomegranate, but it’s a crowd favorite nonetheless

The comraderie extends well into the back of the house too. Art is a strong leader and slow to open up, but is one of the warmest people when he gets comfortable with you. He strongly believes that dedication and a desire to learn is much more important than formal culinary training. Art has seen many employees come and go, and he’s always happy to support them in their journey.

Art and Mark, a line cook, mid-service. A charcuterie board is on the pass, waiting to be served.
Art and Mark, a line cook, mid-service. A charcuterie board is on the pass, waiting to be served.

“Logan, he used to work here and he stops by and brings pizza and we play chess sometimes,” said Art, remembering a former staffer at Sola.

It’s clear that he loves what he does, and the energy is reciprocated by the other talented cooks too. Here’s Mark, one of Sola’s line cooks, plating their Filet Mignon. He was camera shy at first, but he laughed and obliged when I told him to act like he couldn’t see me or my camera, and to just carry on as usual.

Mark plating the Filet Mignon
Mark plating the Filet Mignon

Both Tig and Art wanted to create a no-nonsense, homey dining experience with a bit of flair. With all their inside jokes, local friends and returning customers, the team places tremendous value on authenticity and the importance of family and community.

Photos on the wall in the service kitchen. Bottom right-most is Art with his wife, and the rest document the story of a fun-loving team cheffing it up in their restaurant.
Photos on the wall in the service kitchen. Bottom right-most is Art with his wife, and the rest document the story of a fun-loving team cheffing it up in their restaurant.

It’s fitting, then, that Sola is a combination of the names of Tig’s daughters, Sofie and Mila.

———————————

Sola Bistro 2020 Review
Art & Tig 2019 Podcast Interview

Restaurant Insider: Who Keeps the Wine Flowing and Specials Cooking at Sola Bistro?

We go back to 2015 to the origins of Sola Bistro & Wine Bar, and get a behind the scenes look at how they operate, prepare, and serve their loyal clientele some of the best cuisine on St. Pete Beach.

DISCLAIMER: Kevin, Lori, Abby, Haley, Lindsey & Mahika do not dine anonymously (this would be impossible) and we sometimes get free food (though never expected). However, we dine with the locals and we support our own. You will always get honesty in a respectful manner. We do not include any large national or regional chains in our ratings and reviews. We focus on independent locally owned eateries exclusively.

PLEASE NOTE: Reviews reflect a certain moment in time. Some restaurants stay extremely consistent over many years, and some change for the better or worse. Some things that may change are: chefs, recipes, food suppliers, ingredients, philosophies, ownership, etc. We always hope that you have the same good, or great experience we had.
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