Thursday, February 11, 2010
It was a very rainy night, and the only thing that kept our spirits up driving far up the Silverado Trail was knowing that the large fireplace in the handsome dining room at Solbar was waiting to warm us, and that we’d soon be enjoying Brandon Sharp’s food.
I first reviewed this restaurant in Calistoga’s Solage resort in the summer of 2008 when the outdoor patio was in full service mode, and was impressed with what Sharp was doing. Late last year, Michelin awarded the restaurant a star, which means Sharp is now on everyone’s radar.
Resorts aren’t often the best place for innovative food because guests have wide-ranging demands and expectations. Resorts also must cater to children, finicky eaters and perpetual dieters, yet still entice those with adventuresome palates.
It’s much more of a challenge than at free-standing restaurants, yet Sharp is up to the task. He’s made the menu interesting by dividing the appetizer and entrees into two rows – “healthy, lighter dishes to nourish your soul” and “hearty cuisine to comfort your body.” That allows him to present the menu in a new way and mix in familiar dishes such as chicken soup ($12) and short ribs ($26).
This style of menu also allows disparate dishes to share the table, including lush pork cheek tacos ($12) rubbed with pasilla chiles, vibrant spices and wedges of lime; and crab salad ($16) with clouds of Meyer lemon foam, hunks of claw meat, slices and chunks of radish, wedges of citrus and avocado Green Goddess dressing, displayed like a modern painting on an oversize white plate.
It may be in the country, but Sharp embraces big-city techniques. For a starter, he slow-cooks an egg sous vide style, then places it atop mushrooms, a rich sauce and buttered slices of bread, next to four slices of smoky lardo and a brightly flavored frisee salad ($12). It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner in one appetizer.
His ricotta agnolotti ($13/$27) may seem typical until you take the first bite. The tender pasta, barely holding in the creamy gush of cheese, glistens in an herb-flecked butter sauce with broccoli rabe seasoned with garlic and chile flakes.
Main courses include a vegetable stew with chickpeas and preserved lemon ($17), a bavette steak ($34) with potato rosti and garlic creamed leeks, and the expected roast chicken on a monochromatic pool of brown mustard sauce, bacon onion compote and toasted chestnuts ($26). It might not look particularly interesting, but appearances don’t hamper the sprightly flavors.
On the other hand, petrale sole ($28) glazed in blood orange and accompanied by slices of orange, roasted fennel, rice pilaf and artichokes sounded more exciting than it tasted. The citrus overpowered the fish and made the other ingredients taste one-dimensional.
One of the most interesting main courses serves two ($36): It’s a long roasted Duroc pork shoulder that can be wrapped up in lettuce cups or sesame crepes, with pickled pineapple, peanuts and other garnishes, allowing diners to leisurely assemble their own dinner.
For dessert, you can use your fingers to pick up the warm doughnut holes ($8) and dip them in coffee anglaise. Sharp also features a Meyer lemon pudding cake ($8) with pomegranate granite, and a nice take on chocolate cake ($8) with peanut butter ice cream and lime creme.
Service is friendly, which is often typical of a resort environment where diners get to know customers over repeated meals on a weekend. The real crush comes in summer, when the 85-seat patio overlooking the pool is back in business.
However, it’s Sharp’s cooking that sets this place apart, even if he may be somewhat constrained by the setting.
755 Silverado Trail (in the Solage resort), Calistoga; (707) 226-0850 or solagecalistoga.com
Breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Free lot.
|Overall||Rating: THREE STARS|
|Food||Rating: THREE STARS|
|Service||Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS|
|Atmosphere||Rating: THREE STARS|
|Noise Rating||Noise Rating: TWO BELLS|