The Northern end of Napa has long been my favorite part of the Valley, namely for increasing oak trees towering over vines, and the way Highway 29 morphs from straight arrow into winding road (just like the beautiful and far less congested drive parallel along Silverado Trail). A recent weekend in Calistoga afforded one of the most relaxed Ive had in my many dozens in Wine Country over the years. Visiting Kelly Fleming winery (by appointment only) was the impetus for my trek north, while I felt restored at Indian Springs, lounging around the Buddha Pond, swimming in an olympic-sized pool, and finally trying those famed Calistoga mud baths (I can now say Ive done it).
Calistoga is a small town and the dining choices are therefore minimal. Lincoln Ave., the town’s main drag, is less overrun than St. Helenas main street and less touristy than Yountvilles V Marketplace. Its the real deal: small town Americana, laid back, approachable, and merely a few blocks long.
Calistoga now has their own organic, locally roasted, fair trade coffee, Yo El Rey, a humble little shop that feels like a college coffee dive but serves robust coffee made with care. Besides the shop, they serve their coffee at Calistogas Saturday farmers market where I also bought Calistoga Inns newest housemade granola, laden with ginger, orange, spice. Id like to stock my cabinet with this one. A new juice bar inside Calistoga Kitchen, a catering company, is an unexpected treat. Only a few juices, but each made by the sweet owner at a charming café and garden. Im a little disappointed in the food at longtimer All Seasons (despite inviting, retro cafe decor). But Calistoga has grown up in the realm of two relatively newer (within the last 2-3 years) restaurants: JoLe and Solbar
JoLe, 1457 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, 707-942 5938
JoLe brings a bit of city chic to Lincoln Ave. Clean lines around a wood-burning oven and cozy wood bar are merely the backdrop for ambitious dishes. The a la carte menu reads reasonably with nothing over $18, but a meal quickly adds up to over $100 for two if one goes for the basic tasting menu: 4 courses for $50 (also 5 courses $65, 6 courses $80). Thankfully, you can chose any mix of dishes you want. One can save going a la carte, where portions are bigger so not as many courses are needed. Generally, the price of the final bill doesnt feel quite congruent with the casual, buzzing atmosphere.
Besides ever present wine, its refreshing to see a few cocktail options, and the bar staff can make off-menu classic or classically-inspired cocktails with their strong spirits selection (many of them local and small batch). Napa Valley 75 ($10) is a classic French 75 but with Bay Area ingredients: 209 Gin, Schramsberg Blanc de Noir, Meyer lemon juice and agave. Strawberry Tarragon ($10) is strawberry-infused Espolon tequila with tarragon, Peychaud’s bitters and egg white to soften it. I wished the tarragon was more prominent, but its still a crowd-pleasing concoction.
Dishes like grilled cauliflower ($8) underwhelmed, though Dungeness crab and saffron aioli normally would be just what Id want with cauliflower. Local Heirloom tomato salad ($10) is a dime-a-dozen dish during tomato season but I never tire of excellent tomatoes. With zucchini puree and curry oil I expected a kick, but sadly the curry was all too subtle.
With Cheryl’s Tasting ($18), however, chef Matt Spector illumines his possibility. The trio plate recalls the types of East-meets-West seafood dishes Ive had at Ame in San Francisco. Three mini-dishes of lobster, uni and cuttlefish (the latter in the form of custard) are steal at $18 for such gourmet, painstaking bites.
Chicken fried quail ($15) was the most satisfying dish, its crispy skin crackling tight over tender meat, accented by haricot verts (aka green beans) and blackberries, resting in a puddle of corn jus. Not quite in the same league but still pleasing were scallops ($17) with chanterelles, Tasso (that ever satisfying Southern ham) and peas in peach BBQ sauce, or Korean-style short ribs ($15) with Napa cabbage, chili, peanuts, cilantro, mint.
For dessert, I opted for a tart, summery lemon huckleberry truffle, essentially lemon pound cake layered with cream, huckleberries and lemon in a pilsner glass, and house sorbets and ice creams, all made by Sonjia Spector, wife of Matt. JoLe skillful dishes in an unpretentious setting, representing Calistoga comfort but with gourmet edge.
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SOLBAR, 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, 866-942-7442
Solage Resort sprawls over a large patch of land off Silverado Trail with modern chic cottages and main houses, including restaurant Solbar, facing a giant pool with floor to ceiling windows and spacious patio bordered by couches. The restaurant is industrial with high ceilings and touches of brown and olive green.
Solbar delivers relaxed high end to the countryside of Calistoga. Unfortunately, this can transport a mix of clientele evoking the plastic nether regions of Miami or LA, or essentially the Real Housewives set. Some plastic surgery-amplified couples or girlfriends out for a Wine Country weekend mix with upper class families and their kids. This makes Solbar a bit hard to bear at times and is far cry from the downhome people one sees wandering Calistogas main street.
Appetizers are around the $15 mark and entrees closer to $30 – one hungry person can easily eat one of each. The cost doesnt quite add up with the fairly casual (though chic, modern) tone of the space, particularly if your table outside is surrounded by children, as Ive experienced. Walking away at over $150 for two should offer a bit more of an adult setting, though attentive service ups the experience, as does gorgeous Summer evening weather.
What Solbar brings to Calistoga is truly cosmopolitan cooking. Whereas JoLe is the warmer welcome of the two, Solbar has a leg up on consistently excellent, often creative dishes. Lemon lime soup ($12) is certainly Tom Kha Gai-inspired with lemongrass, lime leaf, jasmine rice, coconut milk, broccoli florets, but its citrus tart is brighter than typical in the classic Thai soup. Dollarhide Ranch peaches ($15) are served with Italian staple San Danielle prosciutto. Charred onions add on s a sweet, smoked layer, while lavender honey Parmesan mousse elevates nuance in what could be a common dish. Instead, it expresses the glories of Summer.
A Monterey Bay sardine ($14) is generous and glistening, just the way I love them. For those whove never had sardines fresh and plump as you can find them in San Francisco or along the coast of Italy, to name a few places, Solbars dish would be an excellent introduction. Gypsy peppers, nicoise olives, and pickled fennel open up various expressions of the fish, resting in a bit of aged sherry vinegar. No dish was more fun than Brannan Street BLT ($15). Stacked between a house-made English muffin is a bacon fat-basted egg, fried green tomato and shredded romaine slathered with aioli. It would make a fabulous breakfast.
Cocktails here are among the best in all of Napa. Though its still a rarity to get cocktails of this quality nearby, that to me doesnt justify the $14-15 average. San Francisco is not far away and littered with artisanal and classic cocktails, many of them excellent at $8-10, with the pricier average more like $12. It seems odd to find these even more expensive than in the city. But they are artfully made and delicious. Smashed Margarita ($14) is made with the ever-respected Siete Leguas blanco and lime, given that smoky, mineral touch Im crazy about from a splash of Sombra mezcal and smoked, orange-infused Cointreau. A pasilla chile and smoked salt rim confirms it’s status as a fine margarita. Deer Park Sour ($14) appeals to the Scotch lover on the light, refreshing tip: Glenfiddich 12yr and lemon are enriched with maple syrup, lavender tincture, and egg white. Trade Secret ($14) is my favorite of recent visits. It plays like an elevated tiki drink sans rum. Germain-Robin brandy and Batavia Arrack may not sound tiki, but combined with pineapple juice, lime, house-spiced pineapple molasses and peppercorn, its sweet, spiced, boozy perfection.
A finish of Robin’s chocolate cake ($10) wins with a scoop of their house Old Rasputin stout ice cream. Though sold on the fact that the dessert includes mustard caramel and sea salt pretzels, I was disappointed not to taste much mustard or enough sea salt. It is still a worthwhile dessert mainly due to the ice cream, though punching up the salty/savory aspect would make it divine.
All in all, every visit I’ve made to Solbar has been a pleasing one. Clientele and prices are a struggle, but the tastes are most seamless of any place Ive been to in the area, and its one of the better in all of Napa. Sitting couchside near the pool on a warm Summer night for appetizers and cocktails allows one to soak in the slow pace of the region, but not lose in big city quality and invention.