Chef's Blog

Solage Calistoga's Executive Chef Brandon Sharp shares his passion for cooking, life and all things Napa Valley.

November 18, 2007

Spa meal sans spa

Solbar part of a swank new Calistoga resort, but you can go just for the food

By JEFF COX
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 3:33 a.m.

Imagine a resort and restaurant whose design invites you to relax and soothes you with its simplicity. Hold that thought and you have a mental picture of Solage, the new sleek, chic resort in Calistoga.

Solbar, its full bar and dining room, is open to the public so you don’t have to imagine any longer.

Howard Backen Architects of St. Helena designed the place. If one end of the design spectrum is Pat Kuleto’s energetically elaborate restaurants (Martini House in St. Helena is a prime example), the Backen approach is the other end: minimalist to suppress hustle and bustle, relaxing because of its artful, satisfying proportions.

The well-heeled among us can book one of the 89 luxe “guest studios” at this spa-resort for a few days, or pay to become a member of Club Solage (an annual family membership is $5,000). Or, folks can make a reservation at Solbar and enjoy the ambience while dining and drinking.

One of the nicest features of the restaurant and its surroundings is how well the interior spaces extend into the exterior spaces. Indoors flows into outdoors in a seamless way. The windows by our dining room table slid back so that fresh air and guests’ laughter wafted into the room from the dozen tables outside. Outdoor water features — a small infinity pool with flames flickering down its center, a 150-foot swimming pool, and a fountain with six burbling spouts — added water’s laughter to the ambience.

The restaurant is an upscale bistro, high-ceilinged with minimal décor except for an intriguing fireplace constructed of slender, horizontal metal tubes looking like a wattle fence with gas jets flaming at the bottom. The feel is casual — no tablecloths. The menu has plenty for both adult and kid tastes.

The wine list reflects a knowledgeable buyer, but the prices reflect the restaurant’s upscale nature. A half bottle of the 2005 Biale “Black Chicken” Zinfandel is $48. It’s a superb zin, though, and for someone who wants to taste the best this grape can do, may well be worth the money. (It’s called “Black Chicken” because during Prohibition people would come by the Biale farm asking to buy a black chicken, which looked suspiciously like a bottle of zinfandel.) Other notables on the list include the 2005 St. Supéry Virtú (a Graves-like blend of semillion and sauvignon blanc) for $68, the 2006 Spencer-Roloson Grenache Blanc for $45, and, in the stratosphere, a 2004 Golden Eye Pinot Noir for $110 and the 2002 Vérité “La Joie” Cabernet blend for $250.

The food tends toward the upscale without being fussy. But it is when the kitchen does its down-to-earth dishes like the Pizza ($11 ) that magic happens. Everyone at our table agreed it was as good as pizza gets. The house-made, hand-fashioned, thin crust is the perfect combination of crispy surface and toothsome interior. Just the right amount of tomato sauce and bits of pickled Basque peppers give it a zingy tartness, fresh chopped scallions add some crunch and sweetness, while Italian sausage adds savory flavor. This is not a goo fest, dripping with cheese, but a perfectly proportioned pizza that allows each topping to be distinct yet builds a synergistic uber-flavor when the bite includes a bit of everything.

The Buttermilk Fried Green Tomatoes ($16 ½) are pan-browned slices of green tomato that have been dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour. They come topped with a good portion of Dungeness crab from the Pacific Nothwest mixed into a spicy Creole remoulade.

After crunching through so many tired, deep-fat-fried spring rolls at other restaurants, it was a real treat to find refreshing and low-fat Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($12 ½) at Solbar. This is food you can feel good about. Spicy chicken breast strips, glass noodles and pickled carrots are sprinkled with Thai nam pla sauce — a salty, pungent fermented fish sauce — and wrapped in soft, butterhead lettuce leaves.

Also in the Asian vein, but this time referencing China, come Barbecued Pork Buns ($12 ), another as-good-as-they-get creation. Until now, Ton Kiang, the great dim sum place on Geary near 22nd Avenue in San Francisco, set my standard for pork buns, but these are much better. Two big, fat, puffed, bready buns are stuffed with smoky, spicy, delicious pulled pork and served with a ginger and chili-mustard sauce. Would that there were a Chinese restaurant where every dish is as carefully thought-out as these pork buns. Maybe in heaven.

In a more American manner, the menu offered Sliders ($11 ½). Sliders originally referred to the small burgers sold at White Castle shops back East, but have come to mean any mini-hamburger. Here are two of them on house-made buns, topped with bacon, cheddar cheese (that was indistinguishable from Velveeta), and 10-hour onions (onions cooked long and slow).

Could there be a dish that says “autumn” more distinctly than Mushroom and Thyme Agnolotti ($17 ½)? These little pillow-shaped pastas (crescent shaped in Italy) are stuffed with ground mushrooms flavored with thyme and served with potato croquettes, brussels sprouts and parsnips in rosemary brown butter. It’s fun to taste your way through the elements of this dish, each one bracing you against the cold, wet weather to come.

A lovely piece of Wild Striped Bass ($28 ) is served in a stew made with oysters grown on gravel beaches where the cold river water of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula meets the sea, rendering the oysters meaty and choice. The stew also contains salsify (the oyster plant) and pancetta. A Flatiron Steak ($29 ) was tender and savory in its meat reduction sauce. It came with maitake mushrooms (hen-of-the-woods), blue cheese potato croquettes, and all was given a beurre Colbert, which is a tarragon-flavored butter.

For dessert there were doughnuts ($8 ), house-made and sugary, filled with spiced minced apples and fun to eat. A Walnut and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream ($8 ) was just a single scoop — but what a wonderful scoop of home-made ice cream it was, crunchy and chewy with walnut meats and deeply delicious with high-quality chocolate.

To sum up: A sophisticated but unpretentious place to kick back and have the best pizza in the Wine Country and other fine comestibles.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for A&E. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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