Chef's Blog

Solage Calistoga's Executive Chef Brandon Sharp shares his passion for cooking, life and all things Napa Valley.

I’m just a dumb country boy, and I get my hipster fill after ten minutes in SF’s Mission district–is that individual wearing a scoutmaster’s uniform as an ironic statement about retro-Smallville, faux-military plumage, or just on the way to a weekly meeting?  And it doesn’t take much longer to become inundated with Italian food.  The restaurant names generally end with a vowel and are Italian-esque words of nebulous origin, and each seems to be a lesser cousin–of the same bloodline, but short a couple of chromosomes–of the long-reigning champ, Delfina.

OR SO I THOUGHT.  I’m wrong a lot of the time, and most recently when I was taken to dinner at a Sardinian restaurant waaayyy out in the Mission called La Ciccia.  The hostess nearly hugged us when we walked in.  The room was dim, with no tattooed staff or exposed ductwork in sight.  Capital letters on the bottom of the menu forbade cell phone and computer use, and the long wine list–one page of 4-point font–was all Italian.

The gentleman waiter paced our dinner perfectly, and whisked away a too-maderized bottle of Cannonau he had recommended and replaced it with a bright Nero d’Avola.  Standout dishes were the sardines, gnochetti with pork bagna, and sea bream with tapenade.  I am always impressed when hot food is served HOT, and ours was scalding.

But the best part was the atmosphere.  Table spacing kept the noise level suitable for conversation, soft surfaces muted the offensive jokes before they could be overheard, the ambient light had the ladies sparkling.  White tablecloths reminded us we were in a Restaurant, not a bar/club/pizzeria.  Old world dining, old fashioned, and you know what?  Civilized and pleasant for that reason.

And before anyone else points it out, yeah yeah, La Ciccia is at 30th and Church, which may not even BE in the Mission, depending on who draws the map.



July 28, 2011

BIG BIG thank you to Chef John Besh, my former boss and the biggest thing going in NOLA (owner of five?  six?  restaurants and counting) for telling the Food Network that our Steak Frites is “The Best Thing I Ever Ate“!

I sure hope the bon temps are roulezing for you, Chef!


By now you know we camouflage a lot of Southern food with Bay Area ingredients, none more so than in the two dishes we put on the menu last night.  This is a grilled pork loin (brined with rosemary and brown sugar) served over peach coleslaw with corn griddlecakes, green tomato compote, and black pepper gravy–not a milk- or roux-based gravy, but actually a sugo, an Italianate meat sauce made with fresh ground pork shoulder, browned off, then deglazed with wine and dozens of slow reductions of veal stock, all subtly infused with thyme, garlic, and bay leaf.

The green tomato compote I made up as I went along with fresno chiles, shallots, brown mustard seed, ground clove, salt, sugar, and cider vinegar.  I was happily surprised when I tasted the finished product–it tasted exactly like my grandfather Albert Graham’s pickle chips!  Something about the ratio of vinegar to sugar was right on the money.

This combination (of pork/cornbread/cabbage/sweet and sour) may not hit home for everyone, but I would eat these ingredients (with the addition of baked beans) in some form for my last meal, were I forced to choose one (about which see a provocative passage in [the otherwise forgettable]The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, concerning the oft-greasy choices of real-life-fictional death row inmates, based not upon socioeconomic tendencies or even upon favorites, but upon proximity to their prisons of available restaurants).

Now for a shorter sentence.  And a photo.

The other item is peach-driven as well: peach ice cream with pecan-dark rum-brown sugar caramel and pecan sandies.  The pecan sandies are based on the french sable (picture an accentegue, sah-BLAY), or “sand” cookies, known for their almost-shortbread crumbliness.  The peaches are Red Haven peaches from Josh Anstey over at St. Supery (check out their Sauvignon Blanc).


July 23, 2011

Lots of menu changes this weekend.  We tasted the first good sun gold tomatoes today; those went on a pizza with mozzarella, roasted shishito peppers, and fresh basil.  Watermelon is here, and we are compressing the flesh with nam pla and pickling the rind.  Those are served with blackened hamachi and cucumber-sake gelee, avocado puree, and puffed rice:

The second, and more dependable, crop of black mission figs has also arrived.  We are roasting them in a 500-degree pizza oven as part of a panzanella with pepperonata, goat cheese, pickled fennel, and arugula:


This might be the first salad we’ve ever served whose appropriate accompaniment may well be a syrah or zin with just a hint of RS . . . well, it takes all kinds.


Also new on the menu is a boneless petaluma chicken a la plancha all’arrabiatta with handkerchief pasta, borlotti bean puree, and broccoli rabe.  We bend a lot of brainpowed in this kitchen toward making chicken exciting and enticing.  Handmade pasta usually goes a long way in that regard.


Allez Tom Danielson!

July 1, 2011

When I moved out to Napa Valley for the first time in 2000, a waiter I worked with invited me over to his house for a barbecue.  I was homesick for Southern food, North Carolina chopped barbecue in particular–and the thought of this guy having a pit smoker at his apartment blew my mind a little bit.  So imagine my disappointment when I showed up salivating for coleslaw, hush puppies, vinegar sauce, and white bread, only to find M____ on the porch of his apartment, grilling Hebrew Nationals over match-light briquettes, with ketchup and yellow mustard at the ready.


Here’s the point:  a grill is a grill.  When you cook food on a grill, it’s a cookout and nothing more.  BARBECUE is not an event, not a spice, not a cooking apparatus, but a quasi-religious means of transforming animal flesh, usually pork but sometimes beef (if you’re in Texas), that is full of heritage and tradition and patience.  Don’t be one of the Philistines who misuses the word “barbecue”—to my ears, it’s akin to pouring wine for a guest and saying, “Here’s your fruit juice, bud.”


June 23, 2011

Summer finally arrived over the weekend.  96 in the shade in Calistoga on Tuesday and about 128 on the hot line over the stoves.  I think I drank a gallon of water while cooking lunch.  No one sat out on the patio that day . . .

With the heat, hopefully we’ll taste the first great peaches of the year soon.  Yellow corn is already very good, but I’m yet to taste a ripe tomato.  We have two different fried green tomato dishes, one each for lunch and dinner.  Very crispy, very exciting.

Tim from K&J orchards brought in great Rainier cherries last weekend, along with Katy apricots.  Most apricots benefit from cooking, but these went straight onto our fruit plates at breakfast and cheese plates in the evening.  Barney Welsh is bringing us strong, springy genovese basil so intense it almost tastes like cloves.  And we’re getting in calendulas, pansies, and cornflowers to sprinkle on our Forni-Brown Gardens salad.

This is my favorite time of year to eat at work–almost every day it’s a salad of Forni greens, corn, pickled red onions, and chili-lime vinaigrette.  It can only be improved by the onset of cherry tomato season.  And a peach for dessert.



June 15, 2011

It was nuts here, rainy as could be.  Not a good thing, especially for the Meadowood golf course.

I cooked at Beth Nickel’s house at Far Niente, the gorgeous winery you can see about a mile off to the west of 29 as you drive north between Yountville and Oakville.  Storied Chardonnays and Cabernet.  I traded courses with Trevor Eliason, the winery chef.

Back at solbar it was business as usual, crazy numbers, a fun crowd, lots of bocce (in spite of the intermittent rain) but not a lot of poolgoers.

Lots of top-secret press goings-on here, stay tuned.  Hopefully you saw the generous piece in Wine Spectator’s June issue about solbar.

Ave atque vale, Macho Man.

Our Horizon smoker runs on mesquite charcoal and woodchips

beer-brined beef shortribs

The brine also contains salt, brown sugar, garlic, pasilla negra chiles, and fresh cilantro

We smoke more before 9am than most people (not this guy) do all day.

seared tuna with caramelized romaine, rouille, pickled fennel, and potato crumbs


robin's warm chocolate cake with mustard caramel, crushed pretzels, and old rasputin stout ice cream

the season's first apricots

Coulda used one of these when I had to park my truck every day on Russian Hill for two years . . .

May 13, 2011

cured pig


I love it when someone else cooks.  And buys–or makes–the wine.


veal chops, yabba dabba doo

A variety of, well, varietals to smash into artichokes.

stuffed artichokes (more pork!)

Different faces have been photoshopped onto the bodies of the unaware guests.