Solage Calistoga searches for its new culinary soul

Soon after Brandon Sharp’s departure from Solage Calistoga’s Solbar two years ago, the resort’s restaurant lost its Michelin-star rating and has since continued to struggle, seemingly unable to fully embrace its new culinary personality, Chef Massimo Falsini.

Solbar used to offer a semi-hip, healthy, local-produce focused menu from which you could pick blind — anything you chose would have delighted you or at least been executed to perfection. Now, although there are hidden gems, most of which seem centered on the new chef’s Italian heritage, the menu often seems unfocused to the point of distraction.

In 2016, Solage changed ownership for the third time and is now owned by Greg Flynn, who made his fortune through franchises such as Applebee’s and Taco Bell. Flynn also owns a few other high-end resorts, such as the Carneros Inn and some of the other Auberge properties around the globe, and he is presently buying up other spas and resorts in an apparent attempt to repeat his fast-food success on a more luxurious level. But what might have worked in one segment of the food industry — centralized command and control; a strategy for broad-mass appeal; aversion to risk — doesn’t always work in another.

As a part of the previous owners’ (retail and mall pioneers, Simon Equity Partners) bid to sell Solage at the highest price they “spruced things up,” bringing in a San Francisco interior designer to revamp what had been a wine country chic open-barn-styled restaurant with high ceilings and simple tables and chairs.

Now the interior has a swanky Southern California vibe, replete with light-blue felt seat covers and strange center-room booths that feel both too exposed and too private at the same time. The bar has been converted into its own space with small tables, which is nice for sound control. However, when you sit in the restaurant or in the bar you’re not sure if things are meant to be more casual or more formal. Thankfully, the outdoor seating, with its views of the surrounding well-tended grounds, a spectacular 40-meter pool and a glassy-surfaced-fire-water fountain, makes one feel some semblance of wine country-ness.

Chef Massimo Falsini

Falsini grew up in Italy and began cooking in Rome after leaving his family’s multigenerational tradition of making artisan charcuterie. Working at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Harry’s Bar, he refined his skills at creating Italian favorites that ranged from pillow-soft gnocchi to sublimely delicate agnolotti.

As is often the case with creative chefs, he became restless and traveled the world cooking, eventually becoming executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando in Florida, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and La Plage Resort in Taormina, Italy. Just prior to joining the Solage team, Falsini had led culinary operations for seven restaurants at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Since arriving, Falsini has slowly removed some of the crowd favorites at Solbar — “Lucky Pig,” fried chicken and others — and inserted new items, some that work and others that appear reminiscent of some other place and time. The dishes that work are sublimely “simple” and those that don’t often include weird, often perplexing soupcons of dabs and dollops from the chef’s culinary travels — a splash of colorful but mild Middle Eastern-spiced paste to accompany the duck breast with huckleberry syrup that appeared on the winter menu, for example.

Seeing improvements

Since the ownership changed, I have occasionally gone to Solbar to see how things are faring. At first, I was mildly concerned — the waiters and waitresses in the bar were newly clad in heavy leather smocks, and those in the dining room had on down-home-style aprons. The tables were wrapped in Midwestern-looking tablecloths while lounge music from the early ‘70s intruded no matter where you sat.

While the wine program remains strong, my biggest concern centers on the menu, which seems to lurch from one theme to another and often feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people — and often having the opposite effect. Granted, it is tough to come in after a culinary force like Brandon Sharp and get things on a new path, but as Fasini told me, “The Napa Valley is like the NFL when it comes to cooking,” and so, although there is a honeymoon period, at some point that ends.

The frustrating thing about Solbar’s menu is that while there are disappointments, there are also moments of culinary clarity and wonderfulness.

For example, a recent dinner included sublime delicate slices of kampachi crudo served with a perfectly balanced and splendidly bright lemon verbena and rosehip tea that danced when eaten with thin slices of kumquat and surprisingly mild serrano chilies. Accompanying these flavors were crunchy cucumbers and deep-fried purple potatoes for texture and color.

But then there was the salad of baby “brassica” (of the mustard family) greens. Although beautiful with various flower blossoms, Chioggia beets, pungent ruta (a bitter herb that tastes of tarragon mixed with thyme) and fennel, the flavors were overpowered by the herbs and underwhelmed by the bland green-garlic citronella salad dressing.

And then, another moment of clarity and splendid tastes and flavors.

“If you want to know who I am, you must eat this,” Falsini said as he pointed to the dish.

The chef presented perfectly prepared and cooked agnolotti that were filled with one-minute egg yolks and a sauce of creamy Parmigiano Reggiano and white truffles that burst with balanced, nutty flavor and earthy authenticity.

At that point, I wanted to stand up and yell, “Why waste your time with anything else, just let this chef express his art through Italian-inspired dishes like this!”

This dish was in a whole different league compared to the others on the menu. Of course, a white truffle can make nearly anything delicious, but it wasn’t that — this white truffle was tame and nothing like the sublime experience of a fresh (and wildly expensive) Italian Alba version. But it didn’t matter. The tender pasta and the ludicrously rich center melted into memories, taking me back to a farm where I stayed in Northern Italy, where I was surrounded by grapevines, ancient structures and welcoming people.

The next dish was a risotto with mushrooms from Mendocino and delicata squash. And although it was not to the level of the previous dish, it was certainly pleasant and well-prepared.

The desserts are also a conundrum with wonderful Italian chocolate creations and others that defy reason. One night I was served a weird concoction of pickled beets and goat-cheese panna cotta accompanied by piles of mangled pomegranate seeds and crumbled white chocolate.

The bright spots of the menu include nearly any of the Italian-inspired dishes and the sushi offerings. Other strengths include the service, which remains exceptional, and the sommelier (Scott Turnbull) who is talented at both wine and cocktail selections and is performing gymnastics to pair them with the range of dishes with the frequently changing menu with mostly wonderful results.

For those seeking to experience the best of what Solbar has to offer, I recommend their Tuesday “Italian Night” dinners. The four-course prix fix menu ($45) prepares dishes that come directly from Falsini’s grandmother’s recipe book and highlight this chef’s heritage and his distinct culinary strengths.

The loss of a Michelin star is a big blow to both Solage and Calistoga. However, missing the opportunity to allow a talented chef such as Falsini to express his unique talent might be worse, even if those natural proclivities have more to do with Italy than some sort of boardroom-California cuisine.

I’ve been watching and enjoying Solage for years. And given my recent experiences, although they have many of the ingredients to regain their previous grandeur, for them to find their new culinary bearing under the current regime they must either embrace an authentic Italian heritage or change things from the ground up, yet again.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, April 2018