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Tim Carl, Local Tastes: Solage Resort’s new Picobar serves Mexican food with a Napa Valley flair
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Local Tastes

Tim Carl, Local Tastes: Solage Resort’s new Picobar serves Mexican food with a Napa Valley flair

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Executive Chef Gustavo Rios talks about his new casual Mexican-fare focused restaurant at Calistoga's Solage Resort and Spa. Video by Tim Carl

Months before the pandemic hit, Calistoga’s Solage Resort had begun a major overhaul of its property that included extensive pool renovations and the construction of new rooms and a new restaurant. Now open, the new eatery — Picobar — provides guests with a casual alternative to their more formal flagship restaurant, Solbar.

Tapping Executive Chef Gustavo Rios’ artistic-culinary creativity and Latinx heritage, the poolside cafe is now serving up exceptional examples of what can happen when you blend Mexican street fare with equal parts European culinary technique and Napa Valley flair.

“We started thinking about this before the pandemic hit, and it’s sure nice to have it completed,” Rios said. “We’ve been able to get the entire team involved — 98% of whom are originally from various parts of Mexico — and so the range and depth of options is pretty unique.”

Chef Gustavo Rios

In 2018 the owners of Solage (Flynn Holdings) and the managers of the resort (the Auberge Resorts Collection) sought reinvigoration. After opening with a big splash in 2007 the resort and restaurant had seemed to stall after the departure of Chef Brandon Sharp in 2015. Many of the chefs and cooks from Sharp’s team had also departed, including Rios. Wisely, the resort rehired many of that former kitchen team.

Growing up in Ensenada, Baja California, Rios had learned to love the vibrant flavors, textures and colors of fresh seafood. When he turned 12, his family immigrated to the United States so that his father could complete his Ph.D. at the College of William and Mary.

Without speaking much English and in a community that had little experience with foreigners, Rios found that food and cooking created a place of common ground.

Like many of today’s top chefs, Rios started working in restaurants at an early age, eventually training under some of the finest culinarians (Thomas Keller, Brandon Sharp, Patrick O’Connell), where he learned and honed his classic French cooking skills.

Today Rios’ style is a wonderful amalgamation of his culinary and cultural heritage — from his early years spent immersed in coastal communities in Mexico and the United States and then cooking a variety of styles, including nouvelle and locally focused cuisines. The combination has resulted in expertly prepared dishes that are visually striking with an intensity of flavors that are compelling and nuanced.

This newest project — Picobar — provides Rios with a new palette from which to create. Whereas the cuisine of Solbar provides a fine-dining experience, the new poolside cafe allows guests to experience Mexican street fare through the eyes of Rios and his team.

The cocktails — many of which include smoky mezcal tequila — are equally as exciting as the food, with each drink seemingly having its own origin story. Just ask head bartender, Eddie Garcia, about the “Spirit of the hare,” a delicious $17 concoction that includes “400 conejos mezcal joven,” green Chartreuse, lemon basil, spicy black pepper and paleta de fresa.

Perhaps my favorite for how it looks and tastes is the “Elephant’s Memory,” a mixture of smoky mezcal, earthy turmeric, spicy ginger and sour lemon topped with an artistic swirl of charcoal cappuccino art.

The food

The focused menu has three sections, but in truth that’s just an artifact of habit. The entire menu is one that is built around relatively small plates that focus on single themes. Prices range from $6 for “Brentwood” street corn on the cob covered in lime aioli and salty cotija cheese, or up to $25 for the most vibrantly colored ceviche I’ve ever seen — full of Gulf shrimp, blue crab and other seafoods in a slurry of pureed yellow tomatoes, creamy chunks of avocado and crispy cucumber.

For $22 there’s a bowl of crunchy-chewy corn chips and whipped avocado that serves as a reinvention of guacamole, topped with roasted seeds, nuts, savory goat cheese and sprinkled with a confection of colorful edible flowers. An aguachile includes a thin layer of Baja kampachi, sliced cucumbers, mint and serrano chilies that is bright and fresh ($20), albeit more of a taste than a meal. The queso, made using Cowgirl Creamery Mount Tam triple cream cheese, provides a gooey Napa Valley take on a Mexican classic.

The taco options include a local favorite, the Sol Original ($16) — two chewy soft tortillas filled with crispy-fried petrale sole, sweet and sour cabbage, and mild aioli. Two must-tries from this section of the menu include the duck-mole tacos (stuffed with Liberty Farm’s duck slow-cooked confit) with nutty, cocoa-infused mole sauce, pickled onions and sesame seeds ($18) and the al pastor, with Niman Ranch spit-roasted pork, guajillo chili marinade and charred pineapple ($15).

Probably the most surprising menu item is then ahi tuna tostada ($22) with avocado, jicama, radishes and sesame salsa matcha. This is a delicate take on tuna crudo with a splash of tamari soy sauce that pairs surprisingly well with many of the mezcal-infused cocktails.

Desserts include crispy freesias con crema ($15) with Coke Farms poached/sundried strawberries and a meringue dome, served with fluffy vanilla whipped Chantilly cream. The bunuelos ($10) are cracker-crisp fried dough fritters sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar and served with cajeta and Mexican chocolate dipping sauces. The fruit juice popsicles ($8) include a choice of mango chili, lime, or strawberry and the tiramisù-like tres leches cake ($10), delicious with roasted bananas, cocoa powder and vanilla sponge.

Finding Picobar

Deciding to dine and imbibe at Picobar is easy (although a bit pricy, the answer is yes!), but finding it is less straightforward. The eatery sits within a cabana-like space near the resort’s large outdoor pool. Residing inside a section of the property that is surrounded by a fence, it appears at first glance to be accessible only by guests. It has key-accessed gate, although it remains unlocked and opened to the public when Picobar is open. There are also limits to what non-hotel guests might do once they do enter the space. Whereas the pool and hot tubs sit mere feet away from the dining area, they are off limits to non-hotel guests, as are the smaller cabanas and poolside lounge chairs. The bocce court is open for public use.

One possible solution to this source of confusion would be to allow the Picobar menu to be available at the nearby Solbar restaurant, with its outdoor, non-gated patio dining. However, at this time that’s not possible as both venues remain strictly separate. My guess is that the resort’s experienced management team will figure out a solution to what seems an avoidable possible barrier to enjoying Picobar’s exceptional offerings.

In a world that has been turned head over heels by the pandemic and what seems to be yearly wildfire trauma, drought and political tension, Picobar represents a wonderful reminder that with strong leadership, a vibrant team and a dedication to craft and the finest ingredients, tasty things can happen. When different cultures come together, they can form a culinary experience that is more than the sum of its parts.

Solage Resort is at 755 Silverado Trail N, Calistoga.

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