March 9, 2012

March 9, 2012
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Erinn’s brother designed and made their new restaurant’s sign; photo courtesy of Glen Ellen Star.

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Roasted first of the season asparagus with sauce gribiche, radish, and housemade pita; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.

Last weekend I met the brave young folks behind ~GLEN ELLEN STAR~, a new restaurant concept taking over the old Saffron space in Glen Ellen. Husband and wife team Ari Weiswasser and Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser hosted a preview dinner at Erinn’s parents’ house, where their adorable 11-month-old daughter Noa could keep an eye on them. As we previously reported, chef Ari cut his culinary teeth at French Laundry, Restaurant Daniel, and other premiere fine dining destinations, but is looking forward to creating his own “refined rustic” style of cooking, combining primal methods like wood-fired grilling with classic French technique and attention to detail.

Some exciting things are in the works. The silky, harissa-topped artichoke “tapenade” of puréed roast shallots and Meyer lemon-infused olive oil won my heart, slathered over crisp, wood oven-baked pita bread. The Greek feta and Aleppo chile oil combination also inspired more than one of us to attempt to replicate the experience at home the next day. As you might expect from a Sonoma Valley restaurant, menus will be highly seasonal and driven by local produce. We ate freshly foraged miner’s lettuce in a spring pea soup that captured the essence of the season, and incredible hearts of tourné fennel that had been braised to concentrated tenderness and then finished gratin-style in the wood oven with a dusting of Parmesan, Urfa chile, and fennel pollen (the dish of the night). Desserts will be simple: house-spun ice cream of varying flavahs, served in half-pint containers to eat in or take out. We tried the malted milk chocolate version, a creamy vision of loveliness you couldn’t wait to devour. While some early rumors suggested the menu would feature Argentine specialties, this is only partially true. You might see chimichurri, wood-grilled steaks, salt-baked chicken, and the like, but Argentina is most definitely not the focus—the oven is.

Wines on the concise but rotating list of options (20-30 at any given point) will also range in their provenance from small local producers (including Benziger, naturellement) to international discoveries, with two on tap at all times. The goal is a genuine neighborhood restaurant with a cozy feel (the open kitchen will offer a great view of the wood-burning oven), well-priced menu (pizzas $12-$16, entrees all under $25), and accessible rustic flavors. As Erinn’s dad Mike Benziger said, “Ari & Erinn’s restaurant may be rustic refined, but Glen Ellen is just rustic.” You’ve gotta keep it real for the 1,100 locals, who refer to you as the “new guy” well into your fourth decade of residency. Opening day will be mid-April, exact date TBD based on the construction progress at the site. 13648 Arnold Dr. at Warm Springs Rd., Glen Ellen.

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Piggy goodness to close the weekend out right; photo courtesy of Brassica restaurant.

By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.

Two new openings this spring will be breathing some new life into St. Helena’s historic downtown strip. The opening chef de cuisine from Martini House, Kelly McCown, returns to his old stoves this April with ~GOOSE & GANDER~ (the name references the old expression “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”). The restaurant’s plan is “rustic American” inspired by local seasonal products, with tasty treats like hand-pulled burrata, skillet-roasted white prawns, and a G&G burger with duck fat fries. Scott Beattie, Mr. Artisanal Cocktail himself, used to bartend at Martini House in its early years under chef McCown, and is now returning to put together an A-list bar program and to man the much beloved basement bar. Though the cellar bar remains essentially unchanged, the rest of the 90-year-old bungalow building has undergone some renovation—the entrance is back to its original location, the upstairs dining room has been retooled with leather booths and reclaimed redwood tables, and the garden spaces have seen some new plantings and touch-ups (though the 100-year-old cedars and koi pond are still there). The restaurant will open for dinner only in late April (upstairs dining room serving 4pm-10pm, basement bar from 4pm-12am), with lunch following sometime in May, and garden seating available after Memorial Day. 1245 Spring St. at Oak St., St. Helena, 707-967-8779.

At the north end of the main drag, the historic Vanderbilt building will soon be home to ~FRENCH BLUE~, a collaborative venture from the legendary Leslie Rudd, Howard Backen, and Lori Backen. The restaurant is named for the distinctive blue doors that have been on the building for over 50 years. Take a look at an artist’s rendering of it here. Though architect Howard Backen has designed plenty of restaurants in the past (PRESS, Evvia, Kokkari)—as well as an unbelievable roster of wineries like Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Ovid, and Paul Hobbs—this will be his first foray into restaurant ownership. Howard’s wife Lori is an interior designer (a well matched pair if ever there was one), and she is coordinating a warm, contemporary wine country setting for French Blue with two fireplaces, a communal table in the center, and an open kitchen with wood-burning oven and grill.

Chef Philip Wang (formerly of Carneros Inn, Truc in Boston, and Merriman’s Kapalua in Maui) will feature plenty of products sourced from Rudd Farm & Orchards on Mt. Veeder, as well as baked goods from Noe Valley Bakery’s Michael Gassen, but almost everything will be made in house. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, patio seating, outdoor fireplace, private dining, retail store for artisanal products … the place is aiming to do it all. Opening day is scheduled for sometime in May. 1429 Main St. between Adams and Pine Sts., St. Helena, 707-968-9200.

Other changes are afoot, as well. Cindy Pawlcyn’s ~BRASSICA~ has launched a Sunday night Porchetta and Tempranillo special, putting their Caja China charcoal oven to good use. The slow-roasted whole pork loin is stuffed with garlic, sage, rosemary, fennel fronds and pollen, sliced thickly, and accompanied by braised seasonal greens and white gigantes for $22. Paired with a taste, glass, or bottle of tempranillo, this gorgeous piece of pork will almost certainly take the edge off those Sunday night blues. 641 Main St. at Mills Ln., St. Helena, 707-963-0700.

Last but not least, the fabulous Nancy Silverton will be celebrating the release of her new Mozza Cookbook with special Italian menus at the Bay Area restaurants of her close friends Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani. These three all worked together at the original Spago back in the early ’80s, and have stayed tight in the intervening 30 years. Thanks to the hospitality of Hiro and Lissa, Nancy and her co-author Matt Molina will be at ~TERRA~ in St. Helena to sign books on Wednesday March 28th and Thursday March 29th. Departing from the usual menu, Terra will offer a four-course tasting menu ($96) with optional wine pairings ($50), inspired by the recipes in the cookbook. (Sone and Doumani’s SF spot Ame will also host a Mozza dinner on Tuesday March 27th, with five courses for $120, and optional wine pairings for $55). You must call to reserve for this special menu, and prepay when you book your spot. It’s Nancy Silverton, yo, so don’t whine. Terra, 1345 Railroad Ave. between Hunt Ave. and Adams St., St. Helena, 707-963-8931.