First Taste: With a new chef, Calistoga's SolBar makes a solid reach to reclaim its Michelin star
SolBar's Snake River Farms New York strip. (Alexander Rubin)

First Taste: With a new chef, Calistoga's SolBar makes a solid reach to reclaim its Michelin star


SolBar's new chef isn't exactly new, but is he the key to the restaurant getting its Michelin Star back?

In 2016, Brandon Sharp, longtime executive chef of SolBar at Calistoga's Solage, moved on and the restaurant subsequently lost its long-held Michelin Star. After a few years of searching for a new identity, SolBar has turned to a familiar face: chef Gustavo Rios, who played a major role in the restaurant's initial achievement of the coveted bling.

As part of the opening team, Rios spent seven years at SolBar under the guidance of Sharp and worked his way up to chef de cuisine. The two chefs went on to open up nearby Evangeline, but after a short-lived hiatus, Rios has returned home as head of the SolBar kitchen.

SolBar executive chef Gustavo Rios.(Alexander Rubin)

"When I was presented with the opportunity to return to SolBar, it was a very easy decision to come back to a place that has always felt like home to me," said Rios. "It has been an incredible experience to work with a family of experts in the kitchen, and I am honored to return to such a wonderful team."

I recently revisited SolBar to taste-test Rios' spring menu. It was the first sunny day following a long stretch of rain, so I opted for a table on SolBar's relaxed patio and ordered up the Green Flash, a spicy margarita that was made for patio sipping on warm evenings. My meal began with a complimentary coffee-sized cup of mushroom soup (which I enjoyed despite not being a big fan of mushrooms) that was quickly overshadowed by Rios' creative interpretation of the classic chips and dip appetizer.

Hands down the most memorable dish of the night in terms of presentation and the experience of eating it, this much bougier version featured puffed potato chips, served in a beautiful glass bag, with caviar and green onion creme fraiche on the side. It had Wine Country tailgate written all over it.

Chips and Dip.(Jess Lander)

The Chips and Dip are a prefect example of Rios' "elevated comfort cuisine," as is the Lucky Pig, an OG SolBar staple that's making a comeback with a twist. Inspired by Rios' Latin heritage, the dish now comes in the form of tacos made from steamed buns instead of sesame crepes, with pork cooked in an al pastor sauce and braised for six hours; grilled pineapple; tomatillo salsa; and avocado crema, all served so that you can build your own. The expectation to use your hands with these dishes removes the pretension from the typical fine dining experience.

"My goal is to serve dishes that are seasonally driven, utilize fresh and local ingredients, as well as surprise and delight our guests," said Rios. "I want people to feel happy when they eat at SolBar."

The spring menu consists of pleasantly light dishes, often utilizing seafood as in the Pacific halibut crudo aquachile. Plated on a flower-shaped bed of thinly sliced cucumbers, the presentation screamed spring and the dish had just the right amount of kick from the pickled fresno chiles (note that the fish changes; they're now doing scallops). Another experiential dish, the pan roasted petrale sole was converted into an oyster chowder right before my very eyes when our server poured the liquid over the fish. A handful of bacon lardons satisfied my carnivorous cravings and gave the stew a punch of savoriness.

The simple and colorful charred avocado and citrus salad with goat feta cheese and toasted hazelnuts made for a great shared appetizer; it's the kind of salad I could eat every day for lunch and never get sick of. On the heartier end of the menu, the Snake River Farms New York strip steak was cooked to perfection, topped with sunflower gremolata and served in a rich, black truffle fondue.

My dessert allegiance tends to side with chocolate, but I actually preferred the Meyer lemon cake topped with a big, creamy dollop of lemon curd and candied kumquats over the dark chocolate glazed baumkuchen cake.

(Courtesy of SolBar)

SolBar at Solage in Calistoga.

To keep things fresh, Rios frequently tinkers with presentation and switches out key ingredients in his dishes—for example, the Chips and Dip might be served with purple potato chips. You can order up an old favorite, yet it could feel completely new.

So, is Rios the key to SolBar getting its star back? After delivering on service, setting, and most importantly, food and drink, they get my vote.

"We of course would like to get a Michelin star for SolBar, but our main goal is to make inspiring dishes, provide impeccable service, and make our guests happy," said Rios. "We continue to elevate the experience and cuisine at SolBar by utilizing the relationships we have with top Napa Valley farmers and winemakers to constantly improve and provide our guests with the best culinary and beverage program we can. I am lucky to work with such a great team here at SolBar and do believe that we are deserving of a Michelin star rating.

// Open daily from 7am to 9pm; SolBar at Solage, 755 Silverado Trail (Calistoga),

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