For all its small-town, wine country charm, Glen Ellen doesn't have a restaurant that delivers completely on its prime location and access to great ingredients and wine. Or at least it didn't, until the Glen Ellen Star opened two months ago.
The little restaurant does just about everything right, and that's why it's packed most days of the week. Chef and co-owner Ari Weiswasser has worked in top-tier kitchens like the French Laundry and New York's Corton, but the food at Glen Ellen Star is served at a far lower price in a more relaxed, everyday setting. You've got to love a place that offers a pig roast for groups of eight or more and throws in a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The food here comes off as casual and fun, but make no mistake: the four-man crew crammed in the matchbox of a kitchen are stone-cold killers. Take a seat at the counter and watch this squad do their stuff; it's like looking in on a submarine crew in combat.
While the food is definitely the draw, the service is right up there with it. Over the course of two visits, I was struck by the style and ease of the floor staff. These servers are cool professionals, casual yet attentive, low-key but knowledgeable about the food and the short, well-curated wine list.
The restaurant is the long held dream of Weiswasser and his wife, Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser, daughter of winemaker Mike Benziger. They moved back to Benziger-Weiswasser's hometown to start the restaurant—and a new life, too, with young daughter Noa.
The food is Mediterranean in the fundamentals, but there are layers of flavors and ingredients from Mexico, North Africa, Greece and Turkey that create a style of food which I think in time will grow into a cuisine of its own. The menu revolves around the wood-burning oven. There are excellent, thin crust pizzas ($12–$16) but also a number of small dishes that show Weiswasser's wide-ranging culinary interests.
The little dishes ($8 each) are served in a cast-iron skillet and are a great way to start a meal. I loved the roasted vegetables with pickled green tomatoes, and the tzatziki with thin strips of crispy lavash. Weiswasser steers miles clear of the beet-and-goat-salad cliché and instead roasts the golden chioggia beets to a caramelized brown and tops them with harissa (a North Africa dried pepper mixture) and blood orange oil.
He also likes to deconstruct dishes or present familiar flavors in new ways. The roasted corn with queso fresco, chipotle powder and lime is like an uptown version of elote, grilled corn slathered with butter, lime juice and chile powder, a Mexican street-vendor classic. The only wood-fired dish that didn't work was the still-in-the-pod fava beans in a goopy, curry-sabayon sauce.
For something lighter, the bitter green-watermelon panzanella ($8) is a great taste-of-summer salad. And with tomatoes just now coming into their sweet peak, the silken gazpacho ($9) is as good as it gets.
For entrées, I was floored by the al pastor–style pork ribs ($21), another deconstructed take on a Mexican classic that uses pork ribs instead of pork loin, but with the same chile-cumin-pineapple marinade. It was clever and delicious. Not as clever, but equally good, is the striped bass ($22). The white, meaty fish is sautéed and then finished in the wood oven and paired with a sweet, creamy succotash and candy-sweet cherry tomatoes. The brick chicken ($21), juicy and tender and dusted with earthy flavor of Turkish Urfa chiles, is solid but still just a chicken dish.
The dessert choice is easy: ice cream. The restaurant makes its own and serves it in little half-pint cartons ($5). The flavors are inventive (peach-verbena sorbet, salt peanut, vanilla maple bourbon) but the texture isn't quite orthodox. It's thick but airy, kind of like frozen Cool Whip. Still, it's a cute, light-hearted way to end the meal.
Weiswasser's goal was to create an easy-going, neighborhood restaurant that draws on local and international flavors. He's nailed it, and Glen Ellen Star is sure to draw diners from well outside the neighborhood.