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