A star in Glen Ellen
Ari Weiswasser: Knowing when to cook it and when to take it out.
There is an entrepreneurial infection running through Glen Ellen’s Benziger clan, a blood-borne condition that may be genetic, because it seems to show up generation after generation.
Family patriarch Bruno Benziger helped market son Mike Benziger’s early winemaking efforts all over America and together the whole family—brothers and sisters, in-laws (and perhaps a few outlaws)—conspired to create one of the great start-up success stories in Wine Country. Glen Ellen Winery begat Benziger Family Winery, which begat Imagery Winery, and the begating seems to have only just begun, there are so many Benzigers to exercise that entrepreneurial gene.
One of them, Erinn Benziger—daughter of Mike and Mary—had the wisdom to wed Ari Weiswasser, a highly accomplished chef with a culinary pedigree long and deep. Ari and Erinn have expanded their partnership to incorporate a whole new restaurant in the cozy space abandoned by the former Saffron, now owned by Erinn’s family, renamed and completely repositioned as Glen Ellen Star. Conveniently, since Ari and Erinn have added yet another future entrepreneur to the family tree with the recent birth of their daughter Noa, the Benziger family compound is mere minutes away.
Weiswasser comes from a 16-month tour at the French Laundry, long stints at New York’s Restaurant Daniel, Picholine, and Paul Liebrandt’s Corton, where he served as chef de cuisine. But what he plans for Glen Ellen Star is a complete departure from what he’s done before. There will not, for example, be any attempt to replicate the French Laundry menu—were that even possible. Heading in a far different direction, Weiswasser will incorporate woodstove cooking into most of what he serves his customers. Fully 40 to 50 percent of the fare, he says, “will be right out of the oven.” For the rest, the wood heat will be used to achieve “finishing flavor profiles, carmelization and a bit of char.”
That’s a skill with a steep learning curve. Weiswasser says using a woodstove properly “takes a long time to master. You have to know when to cook it and when to take it out. I’m really interested in the Argentine and Italian traditions. Very rustic.”
The stove in question is from WoodStone in Bellingham, Washington, weighs 3,600 pounds and required an industrial-strength forklift to unload from the delivery truck. Then the front wall of the restaurant had to be essentially dismantled, and a concrete-reinforced under-floor installed before the behemoth oven could be moved in place.
What will come out of it appears to be worth the trouble. The spring menu, still being refined at presstime, includes a tantalizing variety of wood-oven-roasted vegetables, including globe artichokes (with parmesan and wild arugula), baby sugar beets (with orange oil and harissa crumble), young fava beans (preserved lemon marmalade, burrata) and blistered shishito peppers (with citrus, shabazi spice).
There will be a choice of several wood-fired pizzas, and entrees will include whole roasted sea bass, slow-cooked cobia, baby hen, lamb shank and—with 48-hours’ notice and a party of 8 to 12—a whole baby lamb.
A preview dinner prepared with the Benziger family’s WoodStone oven in Glen Ellen included a salt-encrusted whole chicken that came out moist and tender enough to cut with a fork. Sunchoke chips and red wine vinegar braised shortribs inspired collective applause, and the vanilla maple bourbon ice cream was a major success. Several house-made ice creams will be sold by the pint.
Weiswasser plans a serious collaboration with local organic produce purveyors, including Oak Hill Farm, Paul’s Produce and Green String Farm.
The restaurant will be “very wine friendly,” he says, with a local focus and three wines on tap.
The price point will also be friendly, with wood-fired pizzas under $10 and entrees under $21.
Glen Ellen Star will provide an eight-seat countertop, dining room seating for 24, and an outdoor patio will serve 20 more.
From all the evidence, Glen Ellen Star could be a super nova.
From the Spring 2012 issue of SONOMA