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.