Munch goes to Solstice

In his 1966 tome, "Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice," British historian Garry Hogg said that to insure the sun's arrival each day, the ancient Aztecs procured a steady supply of still-beating human hearts to offer in holy sacrifice to a war god called Huitzilopochtli, who took on the likeness of the sun over time.

Owing to the recent abrupt and lasting appearance of copious amounts of a damp, cold, white material on area streets and never-ending cloud cover, Munch has holed up in CentCoM (Central Crib of Munch) to the point that the pad looks like a "Hoarders" episode.

Like the Aztecs, Munch needed to appease the gods. A sun sacrifice was arranged and delivered, and was nearly as gruesome. It involved the consumption of animal entrails and something far worse -- dun-dun-dunnnn! -- Turnpike driving.

To wit: an I-76 sojourn for supper in the sunny sounding establishment, Solstice, in Greensburg, and a deceptively named dish called "sweetbreads."

Tucked away in a corner of Westmoreland County's seat, Solstice is the most recent spin on a building that has housed various restaurants over the past 60 years.

Chef Gary Klinefelter opened the place less than a year ago after a career that has taken him from the bygone Top of the Triangle to the Virgin Islands and has brought that expertise into a slightly drab white clapboard old roadhouse, where inside, things get warmer in nearly every way.

Visitors step into a sleek and modern front bar/lounge area. Service is pleasant and attentive from the moment you enter until the moment you leave. The rear dining room is a cozy, intimate nook, and dishes are presented in some truly cool, oddly shaped dishware. Casually classy would be Munch's assessment.

Munch, flanked by Big Shot Lawyer Friend of Munch (BSLFOM) and Helicopter Pilot Friend of Munch (who we'll just call Chopper Don), had barely sat down before a complimentary plate of Armenian flatbread and an array of spreads -- black bean & chipotle, red pepper & goat cheese and white bean -- arrived to whet our appetites while we enjoyed a round of delicious Bavarian Ayinger beers ($6).

It did the trick as we quickly moved on to an excellent plate of Filet Sliders, served on a pretzel roll with house-made root vegetable chips ($8) and a noble attempt at Grilled Cilantro and Lime Calamari ($8), instead of the normal fried, something Mr. Klinefelter said he brought back from his Caribbean stint.

We know this because Mr. Klinefelter worked the dining room between preparing meals, greeting every table and making conversation. He's a portly gent, and that's a good thing. Munch never trusts a skinny chef -- a rule that would come in handy almost immediately.

Mr. Klinefelter said he had been dabbling with some new menu items and offered us a complimentary sample of something called "Sweetbreads," a French delicacy. Sweetbreads? Sounds wonderful, Munch thought, fully expecting some sort of tasty baked good. The world-wise BSLFOM and Chopper Don smiled knowingly.

It was interesting. Clearly a meat dish, it was slightly crispy and garnished with lump crabmeat. Quite tasty and a bit chewy, it had the texture of calamari. Not sweet, nor bread at all. Munch wondered what they were ...

"Calves innards," Chopper Don informed Munch. Huh? So why do they call them "Sweetbreads?"

Because "Cuts of baby bovine guts would be less appetizing" BSLFOM quipped.

Fair enough. Munch never would've knowingly tried such a dish, so Munch's trust in Mr. Klinefelter wasn't misplaced.

For main courses, Chopper Don harkened back to his Navy days in Italy with the Mediterranean Orrecchiette Pasta ($14). He loved it and offered only a slight suggestion: "Rather than black olives, softer and smoother tasting green olives would have sent the dish to the moon by highlighting the other flavors ... zucchini, roasted pepper, slightly toasted pine nuts, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and basil.

But the feta cheese was correctly proportioned to not overpower the other ingredients."

BSLFOM had no misgivings about his jumbo lump crabcakes ($18) served with a Caribbean mango chutney and a red Thai curry, with a crispy nest of sweet potato straws atop it. The presentation, on a nifty rectangular dish, was artistic, he reports.

Munch thoroughly enjoyed the Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli ($15). Served with a bed of allumette cut red peppers and zucchini, and nibs of pancetta, it was a delicious mix of savory and sweet.

Solstice was a near perfect mix of great and adventurous cuisine and excellent customer service, in a sophisticated yet laid-back atmosphere. If this place was in the South Side, Lawrenceville or Mt. Lebanon, it would have to turn away business. But, as it is, it's doing just fine, and it is well worth it for a city-dweller to schlep on out for an evening, because, despite it being a wintry night, the sun seemed to shine on the place the entire time we were there.

Clearly, our "sacrifice" worked.

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