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PicoBar adds Calistoga flair to beach cuisine

PicoBar

Where: 755 Silverado Trail (in Solage Resort & Spa), Calistoga

When: noon to 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday

Contact: 707-226-0860, aubergeresorts.com

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Moderate-Expensive, entrees $15-$25

Summary: Chef Gustavo Rios oversees this regional Mexican-themed little sister to the renowned Solbar, and it’s so much more than you’d expect from a poolside cabana cafe.

To create the regional Mexican menu for his new PicoBar at Calistoga’s Solage Resort & Spa, Executive Chef Gustavo Rios went straight to the source. First, he drew on his upbringing in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico, with his family of talented home cooks. Second, he turned to his staffers.

“We have a team of 30-plus line cooks working at our original Solbar restaurant and now, PicoBar,” Rios said of the sister restaurant to PicoBar. “They come from Oaxaca, Michoacán, Mexico City, Puebla, Morelos and beyond. I take their input very seriously, and then I modify recipes as I see fit. I like to keep everyone involved and engaged.”

That approach is how, on a recent evening, I came to be savoring Liberty Duck confit tacos draped in sumptuous mole ($18). The bronze-hued, thick yet silky sauce is complex, created from a mix of recipes contributed by the various cooks. Rios tasted through them all, then finalized a custom blend for his preferred flavor and spice. The resulting mole is lovely, soaking into the taco’s tender meat, fluffy Delta rice and pickled onions, and gets a little crunch from a sesame seed garnish.

Sure, it’s a pricey tab for just two street-style-size soft tacos, but the dish is so rich that one order is satisfying. The handmade corn and flour tortillas are premium, made fresh at a tortilleria in Lake County, though Rios noted that the team also is working on making all its own tortillas in-house.

My first question as I strolled up to the resort entry was, where is PicoBar? There’s just one sign, inconspicuous on a metal fence with a gate leading to the swimming pool garden. The spot is part of the $30 million property-wide redesign of Solage Resort, the vision of Napa Valley architect Howard Backen (if you see a spectacular winery, residence or restaurant in Wine Country, chances are good he’s had a hand in it — Architectural Digest loves to feature his work).

I’ve seen upscale cabana cafe designs like this at many luxury beachfront resorts in Mexico, and I like the relaxed mood. There’s a wooden roof but the walls are open, and we sit at a scattering of tables next to the tile-faced full bar, or on lounge sofa seating nearer the pool. The vibe says, “Drink more margaritas.” And it’s safe to say you will want to drink margaritas.

Bartender Eddie Garcia is quick to suggest drinks based on your preferences, such as the lavish quaff I loved called Efecto Mariposa. It’s a barely sweet, entirely beautiful herbal pink concoction of butterfly pea-infused Pueblo Viejo Blanco agave tequila, Domaine de Canton French ginger liqueur, blackberries and lavender-infused lemonade foam ($18). I may never be able to fully appreciate a regular margarita again.

Garcia also crafted a twist on an Elephant’s Memory for my companion, substituting tequila for the mezcal she doesn’t care for and blending it with turmeric, ginger, lemon and egg white finished with artsy swirls of ground spices ($16).

Rios is one of my favorite chefs in Napa Valley, and it’s been wonderful to follow the upward trajectory of his career. When he took the helm at Solbar in February 2019, he was already very familiar with the job, having been on the restaurant’s opening team in 2007. In 2015, he departed to help launch another Solage-owned project, the nearby Evangeline French bistro (the restaurant has since changed hands). He’s also worked at top spots like Bouchon and Ad Hoc in Yountville, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star-rated Peninsula Beverly Hills.

“Most people associate Mexican cuisine with comfort food, because who doesn’t feel good after eating tacos or chips and salsa?” Rios said. “But every state in Mexico is known for a certain dish or elevated style of cooking that often isn’t portrayed in the Mexican restaurants in this area.”

So we see sophistication in this “poolside” menu, and polished service. Consider the guacamole ($20), presented in a beautiful mosaic of whipped Brokaw California avocados, the smooth green dip scattered with toasted seeds and nuts, dollops of tart goat cheese and flurries of herbs and edible flowers. It’s served in a pretty pottery bowl along with a large woven basket of thin, crispy corn chips.

Those chips are made in-house, too, from handmade tortillas crafted by the Los Angeles company Macienda, which sources its corn masa from Oaxaca.

Gaze with admiration at the ahi tostada, as well ($22). The crispy, lightly fried tortilla is layered in rust-colored, mild salsa macha (a toasted chile oil), then spiked with chunks of sashimi-grade tuna, thin wheels of cucumber, radishes and jicama and spoonfuls of creamy avocado. Microgreens and a rainbow of edible flowers add brilliant color.

PicoBar

Where: 755 Silverado Trail (in Solage Resort & Spa), Calistoga

When: noon to 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday

Contact: 707-226-0860, aubergeresorts.com

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Moderate-Expensive, entrees $15-$25

Summary: Chef Gustavo Rios oversees this regional Mexican-themed little sister to the renowned Solbar, and it’s so much more than you’d expect from a poolside cabana cafe.

Bean dip ($12) doesn’t look very pretty (it’s bean dip, after all), but the menu listing of “Rancho Gordo Ayocote Morado” is beautiful in my eyes. Napa Valley Rancho Gordo owner Steve Sando works with family-owned farms across Mexico to source heirloom legume varietals; these large, purple beans are originally from Oaxaca and prized for their beefy notes and supple creaminess after long, slow simmering.

Here, Chef Rios makes the dip even more mouthwatering by garnishing it with seriously spicy-smoky salsa morita, soothing crema, grated cotija and chicharróns so delicately fried they crunch, then nearly melt on your tongue.

The kitchen has some fun with presentation, such as the two tacos al pastor ($15) that arrive held together at their tops by tiny clothespins. Good plan, because there is a lot of the Niman Ranch spit-roasted pork stuffed inside the tortilla bundles, tumbled with guajillo chili marinade, avocado crema, charred pineapple, cilantro and onion.

You can also get Solbar’s signature crispy petrale sole tacos here, a modernized, Ensenada, Mexico-inspired favorite where the fish is soaked in buttermilk, dredged in cornmeal and flour, then quickly fried to a golden brown. Warm corn tortillas are topped in sweet-sour shredded cabbage, cilantro, spicy chipotle aioli and that fantastic fish, coming together for an excellent light meal ($16).

For something fancier, the campechana (a seafood cocktail) loaded with tomato-chile-marinated gulf shrimp, blue crab, octopus, avocado and crisp cucumber ($25), is a great choice. Or for something more mainstream, a torta is layered with two patties of Mishima American Wagyu, pepper jack cheese, house sauce and avocado crema alongside chips and salsa ($23, because sometimes, you just want a really good burger).

In Mexico, fresas con crema is a traditional, simple dessert of fresh sliced strawberries mixed into a sauce of sour cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and vanilla extract. Chef Rios kicks it upscale, though, fashioning a meringue dome set atop a blend of whipped crème fraîche, mascarpone cheese, vanilla, sugar and fresh organic strawberries. Then he adds a crown of freeze-dried strawberries, vanilla-poached strawberries and mint leaves and a touch of whipped Chantilly cream ($15).

It’s a delicious composition. But I like this idea, too: paletas, poolside. The fruit juice popsicles are handmade in tiny batches by Santa Rosa’s Frozen Art, owned by Jorge Alcázar, whose family is credited with inventing the classic Michoacán treats decades ago in the town of Tocumbo, Mexico. No one will look twice if you end up with some juice dripped on your chin.

Take your pick of spicy mango chile, sweet lime or strawberry paletas ($8), and be very happy you’ve discovered this cultural teamwork bringing us PicoBar.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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