Reviewing Napa’s Michelin Star Contenders for 2011: Solbar @ Solage Hotel & Resort, Calistoga

Smoked beef short rib with sweet corn, sugar snap peas, smoky bacon, crispy onions, and Texas toast (to help mop the plate).

As promised, I made my return visit to Solbar this week, after my lunchtime visit earlier this month. Geographically speaking, Solbar is the Napa Valley’s northernmost Michelin-star restaurant, located way past St. Helena and into Calistoga, which is the last stop before crossing over into Sonoma County. If you begin your journey from the City of Napa, driving all they way up to Calistoga actually takes you more than halfway over to Healdsburg, which occupies the heart of Sonoma wine country (Calistoga itself is a only few short miles from the Sonoma County Line). Because of Calistoga’s remote location up-valley, it can be quite easy for most people to simply overlook this little town, which is a crying shame. This “Saratoga of California” — as it was once billed in the 1880s — was actually one of the earliest-developed areas in the Napa Valley, and even today, it still maintains several vestiges of its unique history (for me, Schramsberg is one of Napa’s true “can’t-miss” wineries, and is perhaps the most interesting property in the entire Napa Valley).

Now that Solbar finally brings a Michelin-star restaurant to the confines of Calistoga, this quaint little valley town is no longer “behind the curve” when compared to Yountville or St. Helena, which have long been home to the Napa Valley’s top culinary destinations. I should also point out that, until the last couple of years, the City of Napa itself was also well behind this culinary curve, without any Michelin-star restaurants to its credit, and with all kinds of hopelessly mediocre locations downtown (some of them still managing to remain in business, even to this day). However, as the fine-dining scene has gradually radiated outward from Yountville and St. Helena, not only has the City of Napa proven ripe for better restaurants, but Calistoga was bound to experience this culinary influx as well (Napa now has two Michelin-star spots, Ubuntu and La Toque). Although I do love the tri-tip sandwich at Buster’s Barbecue and the chilaquiles at Miguel’s, the town of Calistoga definitely needed a Michelin-star restaurant within its zip code, if for no other reason than to draw more visitors to the Calistoga wineries.

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I began my dinner at Solbar with the potato gnocchi, pictured below ($13 for the half order). With the addition of tomatoes, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese, this dish featured considerable umami components, although it certainly addressed many other tastes as well: The acidity of the tomatoes helped to mitigate the buttery richness of the sautéed gnocchi, while the fresh yellow corn helped to bring an element of lasting sweetness to the dish. Everything worked in harmony. The smoked beef short rib, pictured above ($26), comprised my main course, and this dish offered a slightly different take on the typical short rib preparation. The main difference was the smoky, bacon-infused broth, which served as a jus more than a true sauce. It’s an approach that I’ve also enjoyed at Jardiniere in San Francisco, and one that works well for the summer’s warm weather. The short rib itself, both spoon-tender and succulent, offered the smokiness of authentic barbecue (and was markedly smokier than Michael Chiarello’s version at Bottega).

Potato gnocchi, sauteéd with sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, maitake mushrooms, sweet corn, and finished with grated Parmesan.

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All desserts at Solbar are $8, which not only makes them difficult to refuse, but they also help to even out a somewhat pricey menu (even though I used to cook at a couple Michelin-star joints myself, I had kind of forgotten about Michelin-sized portions). I wouldn’t say that Solbar lacks value — the quality is evident throughout, beginning with the bread service — but if I was down to my last $75, I might choose to dine elsewhere (maybe someplace where I could get a giant bowl of pho and a bahn mi sandwich for less than $10). At the very least, I would make sure to order dessert at Solbar, since it does present a relative bargain. Based upon my previous two courses, the ice cream sundae pictured below was much larger than I expected. Good thing — it provided a delicious end to the meal.

Buttered popcorn ice cream, peanut butter ice cream, brûleed bananas, cinnamon peanuts, and hot fudge.

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