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Bicycle-riding in Niantic can be a harrowing experience. When the quaint village is busy, bikes are forced in between parked cars lining the street and moving cars, which don't seem to slow down nearly enough. Add to that a near-collision with an overzealous deer in Black Point on a recent Sunday, and it can be a stressful ride.
So, I was in need of a respite when I came upon Café Sol, a beacon amid the activity and the perfect calming and nourishing influence for any hungry rider. Or any downtown stroller, newspaper reader, or person on their way to work. Café Sol is one of those places that can really satisfy any casual food need, with its simple, fresh ingredients and welcoming atmosphere.
The café is named after the Spanish word for sun - the energy source behind every living thing on the planet, the menu explains - and the café's sunny personality shines from the yellow umbrella-ed tables out front to the cute aprons hanging on the walls inside.
Owners Tabatha Miranda and Brian Bellmore, also Niantic residents, opened the café nearly a year ago, and Tabatha says they had no real restaurant experience but "we decided to just go for it." The café filled a void in Niantic village, she says - a local coffee shop that isn't a chain.
The menu on the chalkboard inside focuses on local ingredients when available, starting with Ashlawn Farm coffee from Lyme.
I always love a place that serves breakfast after normal breakfast hours, and Café Sol is one of them. On a return trip to the café (sans bike), we found simple joy in the "salmon, NYC style" ($8.95). It's hard to find a good bagel in these parts, but Café Sol delivers, literally. When we asked about it, Tabatha explained how she has to drive to a secret drop-off spot in Flanders Four Corners to get bagels (and breads) baked in New York the night before, as if she's performing a covert operation.
"I know a good bagel," she said.
The bagel was soft, with a crispy outside and a perfectly thin layer of cream cheese, topped with tomato and flavorful smoked salmon. A bit of red onion and capers added a nice, salty bite.
The "Mexicali Rap" ($6.95) was on the small side, but the breakfast wrap also showed off some great, fresh ingredients - egg you could actually taste, with creamy avocado, black beans, roasted corn and havarti cheese. The special touch was a chipotle yogurt sauce for a little bit of heat.
Lunch items we sampled included the Treuben ($8.95), a twist on the traditional Reuben with turkey. We liked the balance of sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing, melted swiss and grilled pumpernickel (also from NYC), though I did sort of miss the corned beef or pastrami.
Happily, the Mexican quesadilla ($10.95) was not overloaded with cheese. Inside the tortilla, the cheese covered roasted corn, tomato and a black bean lime spread that complemented the southwestern flavors. Salsa on the side from East Coast Taco also gets a thumbs up.
We also liked The Blue - a turkey and prosciutto sandwich with sweet fig jam and blue cheese cream. If you try The Reactor, brace yourself. It's a big, hot ham (which is sautéed) sandwich with garlic, onion and banana peppers, gouda cheese and a buffalo hot mustard. The spicy sauce slightly overwhelmed the sandwich, but it's a nice departure from the rest of the more common sandwich menu.
Some online commenters had raved about the café's potato chip cookies ($1.50), a large cookie with M&Ms and ridges potato chips inside. While I love anything salty and sweet, I thought the chips got a little lost in the cookie.
The sandwiches also come with daily side salads like quinoa and the breakfasts with fresh fruit, efforts that are done well and appreciated if you're used to just a pickle.
The café is also working on an expansion, which they hope to have done in time for summer crowds to enjoy. After marking their anniversary this Memorial Day weekend, we're sure residents and tourists alike will remain loyal to their new downtown café.
346 Main St., Niantic
Cuisine: Sandwiches, salads, quesadillas and breakfast, with a focus on local ingredients
Prices: Most dishes around $8.95
Atmosphere: Cute, cozy café with outdoor seating
Hours: Mon., Tues., Thurs., and Fri., 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Wed.); Sat. and Sun., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting Memorial Day, open seven days a week.
Credit cards: Everything except Amex
Handicap accessible: Yes