Solbar: Cooking with Napa’s Culinary Bounty

Solbar: Cooking with Napa's Culinary Bounty
Photo by Briana Marie Photography

“To be a force for something different with food—and to do it with that ‘oh wow’ feeling for people—it’s a lot of fun,” says Solbar executive chef Brandon Sharp. Sharp’s creative perfection has earned him gastronomy’s holy grail—a Michelin star.

Solbar wears its ranking without snobbery or pretense. Set around a broad patio at Solage Calistoga Resort, the restaurant conveys easy elegance. Outdoors, guests lunch under umbrellas or ruffling mulberry trees. Flames flicker from a fire pit poised amid a reflecting pool. Inside, the high-ceilinged dining room is understatedly modern.

What defines wine country cuisine? Chef Brandon thinks it means fresh, seasonal, local ingredients elevated by attentive refinement. “When people go on a wine/food vacation they head to Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa. We work with luxury ingredients and French techniques.”

He sees Napa Valley as an epicurean epicenter. “Coming here, the most humbling—and at the same time freeing—thing is to learn restraint. We’re so close to these great ingredients. We get so many things we cannot improve upon, unless maybe we peel them. The best tomatoes, the best peaches… How do you improve upon a perfect fig? A perfect strawberry? It’s impossible.”

Sharp’s culinary destiny dawned slowly. His restaurant debut: part time as busboy at Chi-Chi’s, but years later graduated from CIA Hyde Park and soon found a job at The French Laundry.

Today Sharp and his team are well known for pushing the envelope in a region often known for staid servings.
“I’d like to see Napa Valley cuisine shaken up little bit,” Sharp comments. “That’s our goal, to have menu items that pique interest in a stimulating way.”

Likewise the wine list rewards curiosity. It compiles A-list Cabs such as Harlan Estate, Scarecrow and Shafer Vineyards—as well as Blaufränkisch from Shooting Star, Garganega from Prà and Sagrantino from Benessere.

For pairing with Cabernet Sauvignon, Sharp thinks outside the steak-and-potatoes box. “Chiles are a great component with Cabs—the smoky, dry chiles with flavors of coffee, tobacco, or dried fruit. I love the pasilla-rubbed pork cheeks with Cab—it’s unexpected.”

His Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds

Radish pods: From overgrown radish flowers, they resemble Thai bird chiles. Tiny pods inside pack a tingle like wasabi. Solbar uses them with crispy braised pork belly.

Pork Cheeks: “The succulence-to-price ratio of pork cheeks cannot be beat,” says Chef Sharp. “Flavorful, rich, with lots of sinew, they stay incredibly moist.”

Fresh Eggs: Lily and Jon Berlin are owners, winemakers and chicken-feeders at El Molino winery. Hens peck-peck all over the property; their high-carotene diet yields yolks the yellow of a school bus.

Thistle Honey: From Jericho Canyon Winery, it’s less sweet than orange blossom or alfalfa honey. Used in honey-vanilla vinaigrette for the peach salad. 

Niman Ranch: Their farms raise lamb, beef and pork by natural, sustainable methods. “You know the animals were treated correctly,” says Chef Sharp.

Pasilla-rubbed Pork Cheek Tacos

3 pasilla negra or ancho chiles
3 garlic cloves (medium to large)
2½ pounds pork cheeks, raw
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 quarts chicken or pork stock
3 avocados
1 cup cilantro leaves
4 limes cut into wedges
Pickled red onions (recipe below)
Crème fraîche (recipe below)
Chiles de arbol (recipe below)
16 tortillas, corn or flour

The day before serving this dish, toast the chiles on a cookie sheet until puffed and crisp but not burnt, 10 to 15 minutes at 350°F.  Meanwhile, trim the pork cheeks and place them in a large mixing bowl. Grate the garlic onto the pork using a microplane. Add the salt and pepper and mix. Destem, deseed and finely chop the toasted chiles. Mix them into the pork. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The following morning, preheat the oven to 325°F. Bring the stock to a boil in a separate pot. Pour the boiling stock over the pork, cover with the lid and place in the oven for about 3½−4 hours or until the pork has begun to fall apart. Remove from oven and hold warm.

To assemble, place the pork on a tortilla with slices of avocado, onions, chiles de arbol, crème fraîche and cilantro, to taste. Serve immediately, with plenty of napkins. Serves 8.

For the lime crème fraiche:

1 cup (or less) crème fraîche or sour cream
2 limes, zested and juiced

Place the crème fraîche in a small mixing bowl. Whisk in the juice and zest of the limes. Cover and hold refrigerated till ready to serve.

For the pickled red onions:

1 each red onion, peeled and cored, thinly sliced
1½ cups red wine vinegar
1½ cups sugar
1½ cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt

For the chiles de arbol:

½ pound chiles de arbol, Serrano chiles or Thai bird chiles (fresh)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
1 tsp kosher salt

Place the onions and chiles in separate heatproof bowls. Bring the remaining ingredients in the corresponding amounts above to a boil in separate pots and pour over the onions and chiles as indicated. Let sit at kitchen temperature until able to handle. If using serranos, this step should be done a day in advance, and you will want to leave the chiles in the liquid overnight.

Published on November 18, 2015
Topics: California Travel GuideFood Recipes