This is the third post in the West Coast! A Week in San Francisco and Sonoma Series. Other posts in this series include Sonoma Starlight at Francis Ford Coppola Winery and Sonoma Wine Country Weekend - Taste of Sonoma 2015.
Whenever I travel to a new location, I love seeking out local favorites - places where it's clearly evident that the chef-owners are pouring their hearts into the restaurants.
I most certainly got that sense when I visited Glen Ellen Star, a wildly popular neighborhood restaurant in the small town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. I found out about Glen Ellen Star thanks to the helpful folks at the Sonoma Valley Visitor's Bureau, who provided me with a list of local restaurant recommendations. Chef-owner Ari Weiswasser, who has worked at a number of impressive restaurants in New York (Daniel, Picholine, Corton) always knew that he and wife, Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser (yes, of the Benzinger Family Winery!), would move back to California.
When the right space opened up, they designed and built Glen Ellen Star according to their dreams.
The restaurant is small. It only seats 24 people. We sat at one of the seats facing the kitchen, which is super fun because you get to watch all of the delectable food coming out of the oven.
The star of the entire restaurant is most certainly the huge, 600 °F wood-fired oven, where virtually all the menu dishes spend some time.
Bryan and I had dinner here after spending an afternoon wine tasting at Sonoma Wine Country Weekend's Taste of Sonoma.
The menu consists of vegetables ($12), pizzas ($15-$18), starters ($5 - $10), and main courses ($24 - $38). The wines are very reasonably priced. You can even get a small "carafe" (hee hee, Erlenmeyer flask) of wine if you want. After having tasted a lot of wine earlier that day, we appreciated the option to just have a little bit of wine.
We were very drawn to the vegetable offerings, which included creative takes on different vegetables cooked in the wood-fired oven. There were influences from all over the globe, like the Mediterranean-inspired Cauliflower which came with taihini, sumac, and roasted almonds (pictured above); the Italian Eggplant decorated with pomegranate and za'taar; or the Charred Jimmy Nardello Peppers with the Yemenite inspired shabazi space.
We finally went with the seasonal Corn, which was charred in the oven and topped with generous amounts of Mexican cojita cheese and lime.
I loved how the corn became crispy from the time spent in the oven. It was like eating a traditional grilled Mexican corn on the cob, but much less messy!
We also couldn't resist ordering the Brussels Sprouts, which came with a decadent bacon marmalade. The sweet-salty bacony goodness was delicious, and complemented the roasted Brussels sprouts beautifully. It was an excellent dish and we ate it up, almost like candy (!).
And then there was the pizza.
The pizza was fantastic. The crust was very thin and perfectly cooked. It was just crispy enough yet had a slight chew. The tomato sauce and sausages added a ton of flavor, and I enjoyed the addition of freshly sliced summer squash on top.
Looking back, the pizza was definitely my favorite item on the menu. They do a really good job on them. If I didn't live so far away, I would come back in a heartbeat to try all the other pizzas.
We ordered one main course, the Brick Chicken, a piece of skin-on chicken cooked under a brick in the wood-fired oven and served over a creamy summer corn polenta made with sheep’s milk feta and sumac. The chicken had a very nice flavor, though it was unfortunately a bit dry. The creamy corn was delicious and helped offset the dry chicken.
The server recommended that we get a side of greens to go with the chicken, so we ordered a Simple Green Salad ($8) from the starters section of the menu. Though the dish was simple (greens tossed in champagne vinaigrette), I really liked it because the greens were really fresh and high quality. Furthermore, the salad provided a necessary balance to our rich chicken dish.
Aside from a variety of house made ice creams, they offered one hot dessert: the Apple Cobbler. It was simple, but it was phenomenal.
The dessert was essentially a cast iron bowl filled with fresh apples, brown sugar, and a buttery, crumbly topping, baked in the wood-fired oven. I'm not even a huge apple dessert fan in general (I find them too sweet, usually), but I loved this. The tartness of the apples balanced out the sweetness in the dessert. Overall it wasn't too sweet at all.
Furthermore, the cobbler paired beautifully with the vanilla maple bourbon ice cream.
At the end of the meal, I had a brief chance to meet Chef Ari Weiswasser, which was very cool.
We left carrying our leftovers, happy that we had a refrigerator in our hotel room. And yes, we devoured the leftover pizza for breakfast the next morning, and it was still really tasty.
* * * * *
This is really the perfect neighborhood restaurant. I can totally see why it is so packed all the time, and why there's sometimes a line to get in. The food is simple, unassuming, yet delicious and executed with care. I love the concept of a restaurant anchored by a wood-fired oven.
From my brief sampling of the menu, I would definitely recommend ordering a pizza. Every single table in the restaurant had at least one pizza at the table. The menu definitely changes seasonally, so ingredients may vary, but that incredible crust will still be the same.
Definitely order some fun wood-fired vegetables. The restaurant sources a significant portion of its produce from Chef Ari's garden, about half an acre that's part of the Benziger Estate. The rest of the ingredients come from other local farms.
Though we were disappointed with our chicken, I definitely saw many other delectable-looking main dishes coming out of that oven that I wouldn't hesitate to come back and try.
The restaurant is open seven days a week for dinner. They also cater and even do take-out. They have an outdoor covered patio that you can book for private parties, and they even offer large-format meals like a suckling pig roast, smoked rack of pork, whole roasted leg of lamb, and a traditional paella.
I highly recommend coming here if you're in the area!
Glen Ellen Star Sonoma
13648 Arnold Dr.
Glen Ellen, California
Disclaimer: this meal was set up for me by Sonoma Valley Visitor's Bureau. I received a 50% discount on my total bill. All opinions are my own.