If Glen Ellen Star is the stuff that a gourmand’s dreams are made of (and trust us, it is), then the couple behind the kitchen’s swinging door are writing a fairytale-like script. Here, deep in California’s wine country, Chef Ari Weiswasser and his talented wife Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser have combined their considerable talents to create a restaurant that manage to make diners feel comforted and cultured, homey and wrapped in haute cuisine, all at the same time. Their mission, in their own words, is to “create an inviting, neighborhood-friendly restaurant that consistently exceeds expectations.” No easy feat, considering that their cumulative resume and list of accolades are remarkably impressive.
Cooking Up a Dynasty
The Weiswassers first met in 1997, while both were attending the University of Colorado, Boulder. After graduation, they went their separate ways as Erinn took her place working in the family business (yes, Benzinger-Weiswasser is one of Benzinger Family Winery Benzingers),
and Ari headed to Hyde Park, New York, where he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Ari went on to work at Restaurant Daniel, Picholine, Corton, Glit, Le Bec-Fin, and the French Laundry, learning from master chefs like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Paul Liebrandt, and Terrance Brennan, who collect “Best of” titles and Michelin Stars like the rest of the world amasses bowling trophies and pageant sashes.
Serendipity led Erinn and Ari to cross paths again in Manhattan in 2005, and two years later they were married. The couple moved to Sonoma, CA in 2011 with two dream projects on the horizon. Baby Noa came first, followed swiftly by the Glen Ellen Star in 2012.
Great Things, Humble Packages
Pull up to Glen Ellen Star and it’s easy to see that the owners are not ones to put on airs. The restaurant’s façade has been lovingly described as a “shack,” “shanty,” and a “farmhouse meets general store,” and all terms are fitting, but the actual building is far more charming in person.The exterior is in subtle brown, beige, and mahogany tones, make the whole structure look as if it could recede back into the redwoods with little effort. A corrugated tin roof hangs over the modest entryway, and a large, leafy tree provides shade for those who choose to take advantage of the outdoor seating area. This is a place you could pull up to in your vintage pick-up truck and feel right at home.
Inside, the intimate, modest feel continues. There is a large sushi-style bar area that surrounds a communal kitchen – the modern restaurant version of “dinner and a show” is in full effect here, and diners are as much participants in the extravaganza as they are audience members. The passion is almost palpable, and watching the chef’s perform their act under the rustic globe lights and swinging pot rock, it’s all but impossible not to get swept up. There are a mere 32 seats here, contributing to the cozy yet convivial atmosphere.
Basic, But Never Boring
Ari Weiswasser had a very promising career in some very big-name restaurants, but the pull of family (both his own growing one and his wifes) and back-to-basic cooking lured him away from fine dining and back to this little space in California. Like the hearth in a home, the centerpiece of both the restaurant and its menu is wood-fired oven, and much of what ends up on diner’s plates contains components that benefit from the rustic cooker. Local produce features as prevalently and frequently as possible. “We have gardens in the middle of the winery,” Ari says, adding that his goal is to make Glen Ellen Star a “vegetable-driven restaurant.”
In an piece published by FOOD & WINE, Ari said his last-meal request would be “A falafel with tahini from Mamoun’s on Astor Place in New York City; octopus, red wine and bone marrow pizza from Marea; and David Chang’s kimchi pork noodle soup…with a PBR, of course.” It’s an almost hilarious mish-mash of cooking styles, ethnicities, and regional cuisines, but it’s a remarkably accurate representation of how a cook’s personal tastes influence his creations.
Reading through Glen Ellen Star’s menu is drool-inducing endeavor. Vegetables from the wood oven include sugar snap peas with lip-smackingly briny Bulgarian-style feta and shabazi spice, golden beets with a harissa crumble and blood orange oil, and baby heirloom carrots swathed in oaxacan mole with a bit of sesame brittle for crunch.
Few thing are as delicious as a pizza out of a wood-burning oven, and the offerings here take full advantage of the heady, rich flavor wood smoke adds. The tomato cream pie with Aleppo chili will wake up our palate with gentle but flavor-filled heat, while even a basic margherita with basil, tomato, and mozzarella is born anew due to the smoky infusion.
Sample produce from the restaurant's garden in the spring pea soup; garnished simply with ricotta gnudi and a bit of mint, it's a refreshing ode to spring and letting your ingredients sing.
Heftier appetites will be satisfied by spring lamb ragu over pillowy soft gnocchi with artichokes and smoldering/sweet calabrian chiles and fava bean agnolotti with an sticky, succulent duck egg, torn croutons, and a curry emulsion. Even the humble flat iron steak is special here, as it’s grilled exterior is accented with charred spring onions, wood-oven roasted wedge potatoes, and a ramp béarnaise that you’ll want to bottle up and smear over everything in your fridge at home.
Everything offered is delicious on its own, but all benefit from the creative and thoughtful pairings dreamed up by Benzinger-Weiswasser. Her heritage and talent for all things wine is evident in a list that is heavy on local California producers with nods to Old World classics as well. The restaurant does allow outside wine (although with such a lovely list, you’d have to have a pretty special bottle on hand to want to bring your own), and 1/3 of their $15 corkage fee goes to support the Jack London State Park. This couple is truly invested in their surroundings, and it shows.
A Delicious Look Into the Future
Less than a year after they opened the doors to Glen Ellen Star, The Weiswassers welcomed two new additions, twin girls. With three little ones toddling around underfoot, expanding their culinary empire seems like a thought for the distant future, but no matter – the food and wine is superb, and much as Ari and Erinn discovered for themselves as they trekked back from the bright lights of the big city to the small, locally-driven culinary wilds of California, sometimes simple is pretty darned special.