BELLY UP The well-stocked bar is one of the attractions at the County Bench.
Downtown Santa Rosa finally has the restaurant it deserves.
For a city surrounded by so many great wineries, farms and ranches, there hasn't been a restaurant that really capitalizes on our local bounty. But now there's the County Bench Kitchen and Bar, a long-gestating project from the Chandi Restaurant Group (Stout Brothers Pub, Bibi's Burger Bar) that does just that.
The place is a looker. The exposed brick walls, long and deep interior, modern furnishings and a glowing bar staffed by vest-and-tie-wearing bartenders make the place feel more like Santa Monica than Santa Rosa.
The cuisine is straight-ahead Mediterranean-American. No deconstructed dishes, foams or high-concept fanciness. That probably wouldn't fly in Santa Rosa, which, in spite of its wine country location, isn't Yountville or Healdsburg. The menu is simple and satisfying, with broad appeal. Executive chef Bruce Frieseke and chef de cuisine Ben Davies, two talented veterans of Sonoma County's restaurant scene, run the kitchen. The two have focused their vision into a relatively compact menu that's made for sharing.
My favorite part of the menu is the list of starters and small plates. Because there are light soups and salads and more substantial dishes like braised short ribs ($12) and chile-glazed chicken drumsticks ($8), it's possible to create a full meal without ordering an entrée.
I bet the deviled Brussels sprouts ($4) become one of the most popular items on the menu. Halved sprouts are dabbed with horseradish-spiked deviled eggs. The richness of the eggs and heat of the horseradish are a great foil for the little cabbages.
If it's still on the menu, try the chilled English pea soup ($9). Topped with pistachios, chile oil and crème fraîche, it's wonderfully creamy and refreshing on a hot summer night. The butter lettuce and arugula salad ($12) is another good opener. The peppery bite of the arugula plays well off the, well, buttery butter lettuce. Slices of Santa Rosa plums, shaved pecorino cheese, pistachios and a judiciously applied honey-chive vinaigrette make this a winner.
The Spanish-inspired chicken thigh, chorizo and garbanzo stew ($29) in a pimentón (smoked paprika) broth was one of my favorite entrées. It's hearty and light at the same time.
I loved the simple grilled Pacific swordfish served with sautéed broccoli, citrus and hazelnuts ($24). The fish is moist and pleasantly smoky from the grill. My only quibble is the outmoded presentation—Birds Eye broccoli crowns propping up the fish—that seems straight out of the 1980s.
The list of wines and cocktails is great. There are some hard-to-find, highly allocated wines like local favorites Anthill and Littorai, and a refreshingly deep selection of racy German and Austrian wines. The inviting bar is a destination in its own right. It's a beauty with creative cocktails to match.
Frieseke's desserts are quite good. The dense chocolate and cajeta bar ($7) sent me on my way with a sweet taste in my mouth.
County Bench Kitchen and Bar,
535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.535.0700.