Chef Ari Weiswasser's background gives an inkling of why the food at the Glen Ellen Star is exceptional.
In New York, he worked at Restaurant Daniel, Picholine, and Corton, where he was Chef de Cuisine. Oh, and he had a long stint in the demanding kitchen of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
The result is food that is very sophisticated for a chef in his 30s, a time when a lot of chefs are trying to make grand statements that leave patrons gasping for simplicity.
Glen Ellen Star
For example, on a recent night, fresh peas were at their seasonal peak, and so Chef sent forth a <CF103>Spring Pea Soup</CF> ($10 ****) of pureed green peas enriched with mascarpone and enhanced with mint; it tasted like a walk in the vegetable garden during a cool spring shower. A gnudi (pronounced nyudi) — a light, fluffy, creamy Italian dumpling made with ricotta and a little flour — floats in the center of the soup. The soup is innovative but not ostentatious, a cupful of pleasure in every spoonful.
Weiswasser's wife is Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser, the daughter of Mike Benziger, general manager of Benziger Family Winery of Glen Ellen. She was the winery's East Coast sales manager until she and her husband moved to Glen Ellen last year with the dream of opening the restaurant. Together, they've turned the dumpy little building that was Saffron into a small but comfortable venue. They broke out the kitchen walls and gave the cooks some elbow room. Trolley benches make for comfy seating at several of the eight tables in the room. (Hint: make reservations well in advance.) There's more seating outside on a new deck, and the reception stand is outside the front door — at least until the rains return in the fall. So it's little and crowded and loud, but very much worth the visit.
The eclectic wine list offers 11 wines by the glass and 49 by the reasonably priced bottle. Wines are from around the world, including a sparkling rose from Italy for $39, a 2010 chardonnay from Imagery for just $25, a 2008 Bonny Doon syrah for $36, and a 2008 Graffina &‘Grand Reserve' malbec from Argentina for $41. Corkage is $15 per bottle, waived if you buy a bottle from the list.
That sparkling rose would go beautifully with the <CF103>Chilled Watermelon Panzanella</CF> ($8 ****). Classically, panzanella is an Italian tomato salad served in a bowl lined with bread, but I like Weiswasser's version better. He presses some of the juice from cubes of seedless watermelon and tosses them with bitter greens like dandelion and chicory, and also sweet lettuces, dressed in a light vinaigrette.
Dinner started with a small iron pan of <CF103>Quick Bread</CF> ($6 ***?) with a blob of za'atar for a dip. Za'atar is a woody Middle Eastern shrub (Thymbra spicata) with a thyme-savory-oregano flavor, usually mixed with sesame seeds and ground sumac heads and made into a paste with olive oil. It's exotic but also familiar. Sampling is encouraged by the modest portion sizes of the appetizers, like <CF103>Romano Beans </CF>($8 ***). These broad pods are picked young and tender and served with a bacon and brown-sugar marmalade. If bacon and brown sugar sounds strange, think pork and beans. It's a great flavor combo and adds terrific zing to the bland romano pods.
Weiswasser relies on his wood-fired oven for many of his dishes, including <CF103>Margherita Pizza</CF> ($12 ***). The best pizza crusts aren't too thin, or they turn into brittle crackers, or too thick, or they get bready (like this one). The best are crusty on the surface and barely chewy on the inside. But I'm being picky. The rich tomato sauce and pools of melted mozzarella speak of their quality, and the kitchen has the sense to put fresh basil on the pizza at the end of the bake, so the leaves are still redolent of their cinnamon-y aroma and tenderly green, rather than black from overcooking.
What do you want from <CF103>Golden Beets</CF> ($8 ***?)? Earthy flavor, yes, but also how about some fiery heat from bread crumbs thinly coated with harissa (a hot chile sauce) in a skillet with blood-orange oil? Weiswasser knows how to turn an ordinary plate of beets into something passionate.