Wine Country spot is more than you’d expect from a cabana cafe

To create the regional Mexican menu for his new PicoBar at Calistoga’s Solage Resort & Spa, Executive Chef Gustavo Rios went straight to the source. First, he drew on his upbringing in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico, with his family of talented home cooks. Second, he turned to his staffers.

“We have a team of 30-plus line cooks working at our original Solbar restaurant and now, PicoBar,” Rios said of the sister restaurant to PicoBar. “They come from Oaxaca, Michoacán, Mexico City, Puebla, Morelos and beyond. I take their input very seriously, and then I modify recipes as I see fit. I like to keep everyone involved and engaged.”

That approach is how, on a recent evening, I came to be savoring Liberty Duck confit tacos draped in sumptuous mole ($18). The bronze-hued, thick yet silky sauce is complex, created from a mix of recipes contributed by the various cooks. Rios tasted through them all, then finalized a custom blend for his preferred flavor and spice. The resulting mole is lovely, soaking into the taco’s tender meat, fluffy Delta rice and pickled onions, and gets a little crunch from a sesame seed garnish.

Sure, it’s a pricey tab for just two street-style-size soft tacos, but the dish is so rich that one order is satisfying. The handmade corn and flour tortillas are premium, made fresh at a tortilleria in Lake County, though Rios noted that the team also is working on making all its own tortillas in-house.

My first question as I strolled up to the resort entry was, where is PicoBar? There’s just one sign, inconspicuous on a metal fence with a gate leading to the swimming pool garden. The spot is part of the $30 million property-wide redesign of Solage Resort, the vision of Napa Valley architect Howard Backen (if you see a spectacular winery, residence or restaurant in Wine Country, chances are good he’s had a hand in it — Architectural Digest loves to feature his work).

I’ve seen upscale cabana cafe designs like this at many luxury beachfront resorts in Mexico, and I like the relaxed mood. There’s a wooden roof but the walls are open, and we sit at a scattering of tables next to the tile-faced full bar, or on lounge sofa seating nearer the pool. The vibe says, “Drink more margaritas.” And it’s safe to say you will want to drink margaritas.

Bartender Eddie Garcia is quick to suggest drinks based on your preferences, such as the lavish quaff I loved called Efecto Mariposa. It’s a barely sweet, entirely beautiful herbal pink concoction of butterfly pea-infused Pueblo Viejo Blanco agave tequila, Domaine de Canton French ginger liqueur, blackberries and lavender-infused lemonade foam ($18). I may never be able to fully appreciate a regular margarita again.

Garcia also crafted a twist on an Elephant’s Memory for my companion, substituting tequila for the mezcal she doesn’t care for and blending it with turmeric, ginger, lemon and egg white finished with artsy swirls of ground spices ($16).

Rios is one of my favorite chefs in Napa Valley, and it’s been wonderful to follow the upward trajectory of his career. When he took the helm at Solbar in February 2019, he was already very familiar with the job, having been on the restaurant’s opening team in 2007. In 2015, he departed to help launch another Solage-owned project, the nearby Evangeline French bistro (the restaurant has since changed hands). He’s also worked at top spots like Bouchon and Ad Hoc in Yountville, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star-rated Peninsula Beverly Hills.

“Most people associate Mexican cuisine with comfort food, because who doesn’t feel good after eating tacos or chips and salsa?” Rios said. “But every state in Mexico is known for a certain dish or elevated style of cooking that often isn’t portrayed in the Mexican restaurants in this area.”

So we see sophistication in this “poolside” menu, and polished service. Consider the guacamole ($20), presented in a beautiful mosaic of whipped Brokaw California avocados, the smooth green dip scattered with toasted seeds and nuts, dollops of tart goat cheese and flurries of herbs and edible flowers. It’s served in a pretty pottery bowl along with a large woven basket of thin, crispy corn chips.

Those chips are made in-house, too, from handmade tortillas crafted by the Los Angeles company Macienda, which sources its corn masa from Oaxaca.

Gaze with admiration at the ahi tostada, as well ($22). The crispy, lightly fried tortilla is layered in rust-colored, mild salsa macha (a toasted chile oil), then spiked with chunks of sashimi-grade tuna, thin wheels of cucumber, radishes and jicama and spoonfuls of creamy avocado. Microgreens and a rainbow of edible flowers add brilliant color.