Glen Ellen Star heats up the Sonoma dining scene
I had been looking forward to eating at Glen Ellen Star for weeks and this past, very warm Sunday, I finally got in for a wine-filled, slightly sweaty dinner with friends. The restaurant’s pretty, white tile-lined, wood-burning oven cranks out some serious heat, not to mention some really great food. The charming little building has been given a completely new look that evokes a sort of chic, but casual, modern farmhouse vibe. Unfinished, rustic wooden tables look fabulous against the cheery new paint and shiny, stainless chairs and hanging lights. The tiny dining room and a food bar overlook an open kitchen where chefs are busy shuffling dishes in and out of the blazing hot wood-burning oven. I like to see the action in the kitchen, but the outside patio would be a lovely spot to while away a summer evening sipping wine from the restaurant’s interesting and affordable wine list, doing my best to help Andrew, the general manager, fill up his cute wagon parked out front with corks.
I had pretty high expectations for the food here and I luckily wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Chef and owner Ari Weiswasser comes from a fancy food background that included a stint at the French Laundry after all. The menu is smallish, but filled with plenty of tempting dishes from which to choose, all prepared to some extent in that heavenly smelling wood-burning oven. We started with an order of cast iron quick bread. It arrived on an adorable wooden board made from an old Benziger wine barrel, with a side of creamy local feta cheese swimming happily in a za’atar-infused oil, heavy with Middle Eastern spices and sesame seeds. The bread was yummy, but scorching hot and, when ripped in two, out steamed a heady, yeasty aroma. A small cast iron skillet of roasted artichoke hearts were tossed with peppery, fresh arugula and finished with a few appreciative shavings of Parmesan cheese. The flavors in this dish were beautiful and utterly simple, although I was completely appreciative of the not-so-simple preparation and time spent perfectly extracting each heart. If it’s summer in Sonoma, then you’re bound to find fresh padrone peppers on many menus. Here, they are served blistered and charred from the wood-burning oven, again served super simply with a nothing more than a bit of oil and an interesting spice mixture called “shabazi,” which is traditionally a blend of garlic, chiles and cilantro and, interestingly, named after a Yemenite poet. The peppers were a fun starter to nibble on while pondering the rest of the menu and just so happened to taste lovely with our crisp, lemony – and $25! – Spanish Verdejo.
Each of the three pizzas sounded scrumptious, which made it nearly impossible to choose just one. We decided to trust one of the many servers doting over our meal and ordered the white pie with guanciale and arugula. Guanciale is bacon made from the jowl meat and is bacon sort of multiplied. The crispy, salty meat sank deeply in a creamy, cheesy pool of tastiness of fresh mozzarella and an over-the-top amount of cream-filled burrata. We all swooned with each decadent bite. I absolutely loved the crust. It had my ideal pizza crust texture, just the right amount of crunch, with an inside that is chewy and elastic, and a yeasty complexity with just the right amount of saltiness. I am already scheming to return, sit at the food bar with a glass of red keg wine – or two – and a whole pizza to hoard all to myself.
We ordered three of the four entrees and a whole bunch of amazing sounding vegetable sides. A brick-cooked chicken had the most divine, crispy skin and super juicy meat. The chicken was accompanied by a luxurious, beautifully pureed, but unfortunately tiny, dollop of velvety cauliflower. I would certainly crave this dish on a blustery winter night, but – oh please – give me some more of that divine cauliflower. A gorgeous clay pot held fluffy cous cous and lamb meatballs covered with a tomatoey-rich, aromatic “soffrito.” I am a meatball sort of girl and these were right up my alley, tender and delicate. Although I think I would appreciate anything served in that beautiful vessel. The fish that evening was rock cod and was also roasted a mere minute or two in the wood-burning oven. It was delicate and totally tasty, although our favorite part of the dish was the Spanish Romesco. The sauce was perfect, intense and vivid with roasted peppers. I could always make a meal simply of vegetables and at Glen Ellen Star, the vegetables definitely steal the show. Our group’s favorite, the golden beets, were brilliantly prepared and presented. Simply roasted in a little skillet, they were finished with a blood orange oil and the most delicate bread crumbs flavored with Harissa, an earthy, chile filled Tunisian spice paste. I also particularly liked the carrots, the inspired addition of orange flower honey and almond oil were really subtle, but the result was completely lovely.
You wouldn’t believe that we had room for dessert, but when homemade ice cream is involved…I always have room! I have only been dreaming about their peanut butter ice cream for weeks, since a friend told me about it after dining there on opening night. The ice cream is served in cute little half pint paper cartons, perfect for sharing even though you won’t want to. The peanut butter was outrageous, lush and filled with crunchy, salty, chunky peanuts. I want more right now! We shared a little carton of espresso ice cream too. It was also really good, but even better when blended with the peanut butter. It will be utterly impossible to drive anywhere near Glen Ellen without swinging in for some of that frozen goodness to go.
Glen Ellen Star is certainly a nice addition to the Sonoma dining scene. The space couldn’t be more charming. I adore the simplicity of the menu, the obvious attention to the sourcing of their ingredients – the majority of the produce coming from the Benziger gardens – and the rustic, yet elegant, skillful preparation of those ingredients. I am excited to return to experience their special offerings, like the $65 “spring lamb tasting,” which requires a minimum of eight guests and simply screams fun! Or, I’ll definitely reserve a spot at next month’s suckling pig roast. In the meantime, I will see you at the food bar digging into that perfect pizza. Glen Ellen Star serves dinner nightly and is located in downtown Glen Ellen at 13648 Arnold Drive. It’s best to make reservations, to do so call 343.1384. For more information, visit their website at glenellenstar.com.
Spiced Lamb Meatballs
Inspired by Glen Ellen Star
Makes about 18 meatballs
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 whole 2” dried chipotle chile or 2 teaspoons ground chipotle chiles
1 small (2 1/2”-3”-diameter) potato, peeled
1 pound ground lamb
1 tablespoon (heaping) minced scallion (white part only)
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated Pecorino
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon finely grated peeled ginger
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat broiler. Stir first 3 ingredients in a small dry skillet over medium heat until aromatic and slightly darker in color, about 2 minutes. Let cool; transfer to spice mill. Place chile on a baking sheet and broil, watching closely to prevent burning, just until it begins to puff up, about 1 minute. Cut chile in half; discard seeds and stem. Add chile (or ground chipotle chiles) to spice mill with toasted seeds; finely grind together. Meanwhile, place potato in a small saucepan; add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Finely grate potato into a large bowl. Add chile mixture, ground lamb, and next 4 ingredients to bowl; mix with your hands until well combined. Form mixture into 2”-diameter meatballs. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook meatballs, turning occasionally, until golden all over but still pink in center, about 15 minutes. Serve with a homemade, spicy tomato or a yogurt-dill sauce.
On The Menu
Out in the Vineyard’s “Gay Wine Weekend” is this weekend, June 15 through 17. There will be many festive events that include a welcome reception, wine dinners, a cabaret night at Sebastiani Winery, a brunch at the Eldorado Kitchen, and the weekend’s showpiece event, the always fabulous Twilight Tea Dance. Tickets for these events are still available and can be purchased as a package or separately. Find a full schedule of events and information on how to purchase your tickets at gaywineweekend.com.
• It is not too early to reserve your space at ESTATE’S “Fourth of July Party” which is always such a blast! Ticket prices include a bountiful Italian buffet, three bar tickets, live music by Sonoma’s Tudo Bem, Harvey’s Donuts, and one of the best views for watching the fireworks. Adults are $75 and children are $25. Call 933.3663 to reserve your space or for more information.
• Next Thursday, June 21, attend Ramekins’ class and dinner entitled, “Farewell to Foie Gras?” with Chef Doug MacFarland. Ramekins’ executive chef salutes this delicacy through recipes and techniques fit for a king. The delicious sounding menu includes a foie gras terrine with pickled strawberries, seared foie gras with rhubarb gastrique, and a roasted fig stuffed quail with foie gras sauce and a dessert of foie gras beignets with black currant syrup. Yum! For more information or to make your reservation, visit ramekins.com or call 933.0450.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Find her blogging daily as the Cook at thecardiganandcook.com or via email at email@example.com.