Calistoga's Michelin Star at the Bar

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solbar3.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love dining at restaurant bars.  Your server is hardly ever out of reach, there is always something to watch (the bartender, neighboring patrons, the liquor bottles), and the meal experience is far more flexible and forgiving than at a traditional table in the dining room.  Dining alone, ordering plates to share, or ordering just dessert is all perfectly acceptable when you're seated at the bar--and if it isn't, you know you're at the wrong bar.  Dining at the bar also lets visitors to high-end places feel out a restaurant's style without reservations, and with less formality.  When a Michelin-starred restaurant has bar dining, those are the seats I beeline for without a thought to reservations.
And so inevitably I found myself at the attractive bar of the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Calistoga: Solbar at the Solage Resort.  To get there we had strolled past the bocce courts, through the swanky outdoor lounge area looking out at the gorgeous palm-tree-flanked pool, and into the blissfully air conditioned building past the luxurious indoor lounge area, finally installing ourselves at the nearly empty bar counter.  Taken together, the indoor and outdoor lounge seating must have been at least as large as the main dining room space, and was already half-full at 3:30 in the afternoon.  

As at many restaurants, the food menu for Solbar's lounge is a separate beast from the dining room menu, and one that combines some of the restaurant's signature items with the kitchen's minor riffs on classic bar food favorites.  If you're interested in learning what won Chef Brandon Sharp the Michelin star, skip the bar staples--though they are very tasty and enticing--and order the seasonal creations.  

solbar1.jpgThe soups and salads of this kind tend to track the main dining room menu, like the chilled corn soup with avocado, lime and cilantro, or the stunning Forni-Brown farms heirloom tomato salad with irresistible house-made whipped ricotta, gremolata, tangy sliced shallots, crouton crumbles, and a flourish of 100% Mission varietal olive oil.  The pristine quality of ingredients, the precision of the kitchen team's technique, and the chef's creativity shine unmistakably out of these intensely local celebrations of the season.  If you're just plain hungry and don't care about Michelin, you can also order fancified French fries, sliders, and cheese fritters, creative pizzas (recently with fontina cheese, padron peppers, roast garlic and sun gold tomatoes), upscale twists on Asian street food (e.g. shrimp lettuce wraps, and char siu bao pork buns), and a double cheeseburger "all the way" with fried pickles.  

solbar2.jpgThe bar menu also includes the wildly popular "Lucky Pig" for two--a slow-roasted Duroc pork shoulder, served with black sesame crepes, pickled pineapple, Mongolian peanuts, lettuce cups, and undisclosed wonders to surprise and delight as you assemble your delicious destiny.  During lunch or dinner hours, you can also ask to order off the main restaurant menu, and possibly score a dish with one of "Lily's eggs" in it--an intensely orange-yolked local product so admired that it has its own Facebook page.

Solbar's wine list sorts its selections by style and body rather than by price or geographic origin, which makes it user friendly for both wine newbies and connoisseurs--once you master the playful titles  like "zipadeedoodah," "turn on," and "flex."  Wine prices start at $30 per bottle for some of zippy whites, and climb to $1200 for the 2005 Harlan cabernet, with plenty of options in between.

Because of its status as the sole restaurant at a secluded resort, Solbar has to serve every meal, every day, to the wide variety of people passing through its doors.  Unlike many restaurants in this position, though, Solbar actually succeeds at churning out top-quality, stylish, satisfying cuisine for guests of every preference and persuasion.  And the warm welcome isn't reserved for those who chose to sit in the main dining room.

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