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May 11, 2012 6 min read

Glen Ellen

Glen Ellen
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For my compatriots who tend to live life in fifth gear, it’s essential to occasionally flip the hazards on, pull it on over, and freaking relax already. Sometimes you only have 24 hours to unwind, so you need an instant-on vacation. (Serenity now!!) These are usually my parameters for a 24-hour hard-core chillax session: I need to drive for only an hour or so, find myself in a peaceful place, not stress out about dinner, sleep in a cloud of a bed, have a pretty spot where I can go for a walk in the morning, not have to travel far or even dress up for breakfast, and maybe sneak a spa treatment in there somewhere. And then drive home and flip my life back into fifth.


So when I got invited to go up to the KENWOOD INN AND SPA for an overnight visit, my 24-hour-getaway parameters were not only fulfilled, but wildly exceeded. The hour-plus drive to Glen Ellen is a pretty one, and you can even stop in town for lunch before checking in. There’s the new Glen Ellen Star opening up (everyone in town seems excited about it), and the friendly folks at the Hop Kiln tasting room have quite a deal: for $22, you get three small plates paired with three of their Russian River wines (like a flatbread with fontina, mushroom, and housemade red wine bacon). Oh, and don’t pass up the banana cream pie ($6) for dessert—chef de cuisine Khambay Khamsyvoravong, who is behind the dishes here, is also the executive pastry chef at Kenwood Inn and Spa. A local mentioned the fig and arugula salad and the burger at the fig cafe & winebar is tops, and the Sunflower Cafe is known for its roasted duck on baguette with caramelized onions and goat cheese (and secret garden).


Once it’s time to check in to Kenwood, it’s like you slipped into a Montecito hideaway, the Mediterranean villa of your dreams. The last time I visited the property, it was still under construction and renovation, but now it’s pure magic. The property has some of the prettiest landscaping, with trees and greenery and winding paths and little stone walls, with ivy creeping up the stucco buildings. There’s a wheelhouse that spins water, with a hot tub inside; I didn’t have a chance to dip into the saline pool or have a spa treatment this time, but I was more than happy to hang out in my robe, read my book in bed, and listen to music. I so appreciate the fact there aren’t any TVs in the rooms (but there are fireplaces!), and you have to be 18 or older to stay there. It’s the hotel version of adult swim.

There are 29 rooms in all, and I’d request some of the quiet bungalows near the pool—it seems there’s a little less traffic over there (well, unless it’s summer and you have people hanging out around the pool). My room was in the building overlooking the main courtyard and downwind from the kitchen—it was oddly a bit smoky from the wafting from the wood-burning grill (I had to air it out). But I did enjoy the inviting décor, which mixed antiques and newer pieces—very comfortable.


My friend’s sprawling room was magnificent, positively palatial, but was above the main reception area, so he heard a bit of foot traffic from arrivals and departures in the morning. When booking, I’d ask questions based on what you like—I’m a late sleeper on my 24-hour getaways, so for me it’s important to have lots of quiet.

You can view my complete photo album on Flickr here.

One of the latest developments at the property is the hiring of chef Steven Snook, a young and talented Brit who hails from the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay in London and New York. (He even showed me a dog bite on his forearm. Kidding.) The restaurant is only available to guests of the hotel, and offers both an à la carte menu and a seasonal tasting menu. Snook is totally fired up with the property’s garden (he is completely renovating it) and is very passionate about growing herbs and vegetables, so I’d consider going that route if it appeals to you ($75, wine included, but an automatic service charge of 21% and 8% sales tax will be added). If you’re a hearty eater, I recommend supplementing your menu with a dish off the à la carte menu—my dining partner (with two hollow legs) admittedly wasn’t completely sated.


The menu is rooted in a rustic Cal-Italian style, but there is also a refined touch to presentations and I enjoyed seeing the strong presence of such seasonal and local ingredients. That night’s tasting menu was highlighting rhubarb (it was $95, now $75), which included a terrine of Sonoma foie gras served with rhubarb gelée and poached rhubarb (not the most supple presentation of foie gras, but the flavors were on point), and we added a course of gnocchi ($16) with local Taleggio cheese. The plump gnocchi were very potato-y and creamy (chef uses russets)—my grandma, the gnocchi maker in our family, would have approved.

The delicious house-smoked mackerel came with pickled artichoke (admittedly a bit crunchy) and rhubarb, and tender baby lettuces from the property, followed by a palate refresher of rhubarb and rosemary sorbetto (I enjoyed the flavor and texture of the sorbetto, but found the herb a bit too strong and sharp).


We finished with roasted squab breast and leg, with smoked potato puree, English peas, and pickled rhubarb—it was rich and satisfying on that rainy night. Dessert was a sweet and simple honey mascarpone panna cotta.

Sure, it’s not quite big-city dining (service was friendly but there were some odd timing moments, weird utensil choices, and random music that jumped from the cheesy to good Miles Davis), but there’s also a lot going for it: the atmospheric room, we treasured our table by the fireplace, and the fact you can stumble up to your bed after dinner are all huge pluses. I recommend visiting the wine bar before dinner, where you can find some well-selected (and priced) bottles on the list by wine director Ann Davis (we went outside Sonoma and popped over to Sicily—who were we to resist the Morgante Nero d’Avola?).


You will sleep so well in your bed—I sunk into it like I was going to sleep for years. Nothing like sleeping on a feather bed topped with a down comforter, a fluffy and soft cocoon. In the morning, you’ll return to the dining room to find an array of breakfast treats, which you can eat inside or on the patio. You can scope out your fellow guests, who aren’t just couples, but also a lot of mothers and daughters, and a few girlfriend getaways. You’ll find it very, very hard to check out and leave paradise—I’m already pining for another 24-hour escape.

Is it a bit too spendy for you? Kenwood offers some nice deals and packages, so be sure to sign up for their special offers newsletter.

You can view my complete photo album on Flickr here. (Tasting menu food photos supplied by Kenwood Inn and Spa.)

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