The talent that has made Solbar restaurant in Calistoga such a destination for lovers of California cuisine has broken out of those constraints and spilled into the building that used to be the Wappo Bar on Washington Street.
Given the firepower in the kitchen, the results are predictably spectacular. Evangeline, as the new restaurant is called, takes on a Creole and Cajun theme, with a big helping of New Orleans. It’s named for Longfellow’s tragic poem of lost love among the French Acadians, who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century and landed in the Louisiana low country — where, happily, they invented jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo.
Its mastermind is Brandon Sharp, vice president of culinary operations at Solage Hotels and executive chef at Solbar, where he’s been awarded a Michelin star for the past six years. He’s cooked at the French Laundry in Yountville, Gary Danko in San Francisco, and Restaurant August in New Orleans.
The culinary operation at Evangeline is handled by executive chef Gustavo Rios, who has cooked at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville and at the world-famous Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. These guys know what they’re doing.
A prime example is the Friday night plat du jour, Shrimp Etouffee ($19 ★★★★), the culinary equivalent of an offer you can’t refuse.
“Etouffee” is French for smothered; fat, wild-caught Gulf shrimp are smothered in a sauce so good it made me blink.
Chef Rios starts by making a roux of butter and flour, cooked until the butter browns and the flour loses its raw quality.
Then he adds the holy trinity, what the Cajuns call a mix of onions, celery, and green bell pepper. Then garlic, diced tomato, bay leaves, cayenne to wake up your palate, parsley, and stock.
When the sauce thickens, the shrimp are added and cooked for a few minutes, then it’s all poured over white rice.
Meanwhile, New Orleans music is playing on the sound system, but not obtrusively. The service is quiet, gentle, and respectful. You can sit inside by the bar, outside on a delightful patio, or in a separate dining room.
A wine to pair with the etouffee? I’d choose a glass of 2014 Cotes du Rhone Grenache blend for $12.
Want to go upscale? There’s a good-looking 2010 Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape for $95. Suffice it to say the wine list is full of treasures from here and there. Corkage is complimentary for the first bottle and $15 for subsequent bottles.
Coastal Louisiana may have some drawbacks, such as the oppressive muggy heat, but bad food isn’t one of them. Even a simple dish like Gulf Shrimp Cocktail ($14 ★★★) can be super scrumptious. Here, five fat crustaceans are paired with cocktail sauce and a spicy Cajun remoulade.
Chef Rios obviously doesn’t mind leaving Cajun country for inspiration. His Melon and Ahi Tuna Carpaccio ($16 ★★★½) is as fun as it is delicious. Cubes of pink watermelon and green honeydew melon join thin slices of raw ahi and guanciale (pork cheek) on a bed of baby arugula. Climbing further up the stairway to gustatory heaven, we come to Amana Yellow Chilled Tomato Soup ($11 ★★★★). The orange-yellow, beefsteak-type Amana Yellow tomato is an heirloom variety tomato sold by Baker Creek; here, it’s given a dollop of Parmesan mousse, bits of fragrant basil, and olive oil croutons.