Calistoga’s Solbar restaurant and fans celebrate return of Chef Rios

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The dish in front of me is a thing of beauty, and not just because it’s a hunk of al pastor Niman ranch pork shoulder presented with fluffy Chinese steamed buns and a colorful array of accouterments.

The dish, long a signature of Solbar restaurant at Solage Calistoga resort, had disappeared from the menu four years ago, when then-executive chef Brandon Sharp departed the property to open another Solage project, the nearby Evangeline French bistro. When he left, he took Solbar’s chef de cuisine Gustavo Rios with him, installing him as Evangeline’s executive chef while Sharp commanded the demanding job of launching the boutique restaurant showcasing Gallic and Creole cooking.

But now, Rios has returned to Solbar, and he has brought back Sharp’s famous platter known as “Lucky Pig.” Part of the inspiration, Rios says, is that 2019 is the Year of the Pig on the Chinese Zodiac. It’s a timely tribute: Sharp’s recipe was Asian, relying on garlic-thyme marinade with sides of pickled pineapple, black sesame crepes, chopped green onions, sweet chile mustard sauce and Mongolian peanuts.

This Lucky Pig is Rios’ opportunity to make his own statement, however, so he looks to his Mexican heritage (would that make the dish “Cerdo con Suerte?”) Either way, the restaurant sells several hundred Lucky Pigs each week now, so it’s clear that his guests literally eat up the succulent roast stained red from nutty, peppery achiote paste. Their fingers end up stained red (but licked clean) as they stuff the tender meat into warm, soft buns or wrap it in lettuce cups (I stick the bibb lettuce in the bun, for the piggiest feast), then layer in the mild, charred pineapple-tomatillo salsa, spicy avocado crema and crisp pickled red onions ($54). Yes, it’s pricey, but the serving is enough for two.

All in all, it’s a welcome homecoming for Rios, who was on Solbar’s opening team in 2007, met his future wife at the posh resort, and learned the challenges of cooking for the very busy, very popular destination that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, plus hosts room service, spa menus, catering, and many on-site special events. He loved Evangeline, he says, but when that restaurant sold to a private owner in December 2017, he began thinking that financially, it might make better sense for him to return to the resort.

Rios’ first step was to update all the menus and get staff familiarized with his way of working as a very hands-on chef who likes to be personally involved with service. He brought back some other early signatures, such as lunch’s spicy lettuce wrap trio tucked with whole, rose-pink shrimp curled atop glass noodles, pickled carrots, microgreens and avocado for drizzling in nam pla fish sauce and lime spritzes ($21). And he introduced new dishes, such as Pacific halibut ceviche with Hass avocado, spicy salsa verde, cucumber, and purple potato chips for scooping ($22). Either bite is delicious, especially enjoyed on the patio with its horizontal fountain and lacy shade trees.

As always, dinner remains a luxurious affair, served in the sophisticated dining room with its wash of gray and cream walls framing hardwood floors, expansive windows overlooking the patio, and bold hanging lights resembling candle-dotted planets woven of reeds.

Sure, lately some food and travel writers have been lamenting Napa Valley’s increasing gentrification (Oh no! There’s a Four Seasons Resort being built across the street from Solage!), but I love that fine spots like Solbar exist amid increasingly casual restaurants, where we can get niceties like complimentary country loaf bread and sweet butter, and an amuse-bouche of juicy, multicolor summer’s-best cherry tomatoes nestled in a savory custard tart.

For all the smooth, precise service, too, there’s nothing stuffy here. My server winks when I ask him if he “can just slip me” some of the Regiis Ova caviar appetizer ($100 an ounce), and then recommends my table try the chips and dip starter instead ($45).

It brings a surprisingly generous portion of the Regiis Ova Siberian brand (from South America, actually) sturgeon caviar packaged by chef Thomas Keller, the eggs slightly sweet and creamy and paired with a dollop of onion-kissed crème fraiche plus a glass jar of purple potato chips. Spread the crème on a chip, dot it with caviar, and it’s a quintessential Wine Country nosh with a glass of Schramsberg sparkling rosé brut ($22).

We’re nearing the end of prime peach season, so I’ve been eating as many of the rosy gold beauties I can. Here, the fruit is cut into chunks, and splayed on the plate with silky burrata cheese, a bit of caramelized roasted onion, four large, lacy thin slices of San Daniele prosciutto, and a few tears of arugula lightly dressed in honey-lavender vinaigrette ($18), for a pleasing mix of sweet, salty, peppery and creamy.

Another starter, Yukon gold potato gnocchi, is rich enough to be an entrée. The dumplings are tossed with sweet Maine lobster chunks, beech mushrooms and curried walnuts in a lavish sauce beurre monté that’s thick enough to cling to every buttery morsel ($24).

For new entrees, Rios keeps meat eaters happy with big dishes like Snake River Farms New York strip steak ($55) loaded with cream of baby spinach, earthy black truffle fondue, grilled local matsutake mushrooms, and terrific Kennebec potato rosti that are fluffy inside, crunchy outside, and probably bursting with more beautiful butter than I need in a week. When you’re going to indulge in a classic meat feast, this is a fine place to do it.

Doing a 180, though, the vegetarian Carolina Gold rice bowl is excellent, too. The creamy long-grain makes a lovely bed for roasted artichokes, crisp English peas, mixed mushrooms and asparagus that are so flavorful the dish barely needs more than a drizzle of parsley oil and sprinkle of crisp puffed rice ($36).

I add a poached egg ($5), however, for the punch of protein and golden yolk.

Chef Rios was born and raised in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico, with a marine biologist father and skilled cook for a mom. So it’s not surprising to see a lot of new seafood dishes on his menu, including dinner’s new olive oil poached Alaskan halibut plated with local morel mushrooms, California white asparagus, summer peas and béarnaise sauce ($45).

Even more interesting is his new recipe of wild red snapper crudo aguachile, which is more brightly seasoned and less acidic than traditional aguachile, in an intriguing mix of serrano chile-water, coriander, mint and pickled fresno chiles ($21).

Rios puts his spin on classic sweets, as well, including butterscotch pudding and cheesecake. The pudding is spiked with $250-a-bottle Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Oak Single Malt Scotch, then finished with fleur de sel, the Valrhona Caramelia milk chocolate toffee, and delicate pine nut amaretti cookies ($15). The cheesecake isn’t as rich, but still luxurious, done with Valrhona Ivoire 35% white chocolate and fromage blanc on an oat-nut crust, with blackberry sorbet and a sugar cracker on the side ($15).

Welcome back, chef Rios. We’re glad to see you again.

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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