At first encounter, the kitschy side of Solvang can be off-putting, what with all the shop windows filled with cutesy figurines and souvenirs of the Danish-themed town. But on closer acquaintance, when window boxes spill over with flowers and old-fashioned street lamps cast a milky glow on half-timbered buildings, the little Santa Inez Valley town seems utterly charming in its eccentricities. On a recent jaunt there, I pass Hamlet Square, the Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen Museum and a shop called the Mole Hole, among others.
The whole effect would be terminally cute if it weren’t so innocent. And if the wine country hadn’t taken off, Solvang, population just over 5,000, would just be a place good for little more than a brief stop for an aebleskiver (a golf ball-shaped pancake served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar) on the way to a bowl of Andersen’s Pea Soup in Buellton.
But then along came the film “Sideways” to show the world the beauty of this sleepy valley and its wines. Now nearby wineries post signs “as seen in ‘Sideways,’ ” and visiting this part of the Central Coast wine country has become a rite of passage for wine lovers. Each year there are more places to stay and the occasional serious restaurant too.
The latest is Root 246 in Hotel Corque (the former Royal Scandinavian Inn), owned by the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians. Despite the cutesy name, the restaurant is seriously worth your consideration. That’s because the man behind it is Bradley Ogden, one of this country’s great American chefs.
The Midwesterner arrived in California in the early ‘80s straight from the American Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., as executive chef at San Francisco’s then-new and very luxe Campton Place Hotel. Here was something new: real American cooking, not the traditional French and Italian that had for so long dominated American fine dining.
He later opened his flagship Lark Creek Inn in Marin County, One Market in San Francisco and several more restaurants, including Arterra in Del Mar. In 2003, he caught the Vegas bug and opened Bradley Ogden at Caesars Palace, still one of the best restaurants on the Strip.
And now this new wine country project. Ogden, 57, is not just flying in for an hour or two to consult on the menu. He’s bought a house in Buellton, and locals tell me they see him at the restaurant every time they are there.
His chef de cuisine is Johnny Church, who worked at a number of high-end restaurants in Las Vegas and as executive chef at AJ’s Steakhouse at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The two of them write the menu every day, so lots of things change, depending on what Church or Ogden finds at the farmers markets. When he comes around to the tables, Ogden sounds genuinely excited about the ingredients he’s showcasing from local producers.
And that excitement shows in the menu. It’s intelligent and well-conceived, with lots of dishes you won’t see elsewhere. His take on wine country cuisine is just what it should be: delicious and wine-friendly. Beautiful ingredients plus excellent technique equal one jewel of a restaurant. The place is lively and fun.
Flatbread is the new pizza, albeit sometimes the lame new pizza. But Root 246’s is exceptionally good. The crust has a fine, yeasty flavor. It’s slicked with olive oil, so it’s extra crunchy. The combination of flavors — andouille sausage, cheese “fondue” made from a mix of cheeses, plus black beans and avocado slices dabbed with a crimson jalapeño sauce — is terrific.
On the lighter side, Ogden has a simple plate of four oysters in the shell with a delightful house-made cocktail sauce and a perfect mignonette with finely minced shallots. (Too late, I found out that on Tuesday nights, oysters are $1 apiece in the bar.)
Pork belly can be heavy as an appetizer. He solves it by serving crispy Hobbs pork belly with a couple of thick-sliced fried green tomatoes on a smear of avocado purée. It works.
His soups are gutsy too, if the lovely green purée of spring garlic scapes and potatoes garnished with leeks and matchsticks of crisp, smoky bacon are any indication. Salads aren’t shy either, including a deconstructed organic romaine Caesar with a poached egg on the side, and a delightful medley of greens and baby vegetables called the garden party salad.
Though Ogden’s cuisine has always gravitated toward hearty meat dishes, the kitchen turns out some graceful fish dishes too, especially the big-eye tuna with jade rice and a bright-tasting orange vinaigrette. Unfortunately, the sole vegetarian entree is a miss. The thick green tagliatelle tossed with wild mushrooms and slivered asparagus is bland and too greasy.
When it comes to meat, though, watch out. A tall smoked and grilled pork chop comes in what’s described as a bacon vinaigrette but is more like a bacon ragu, juicy and full of sweet pork flavor. It’s set off with a crunchy wheatberry pilaf and a demure apple-cheddar tartlet.
A “duo” of Colorado lamb rack and porterhouse is some of the best lamb I’ve had in ages. A prime rib-eye, smoky from the wood-fired grill, is cooked to a perfect medium-rare. I just wish the beef had more depth of flavor. Short ribs braised in Guinness, though it had plenty of flavor, also had a peculiar, almost jellied texture.
Waiters are enthusiastic about the food, egging on our table to order more desserts, and offering advice in the nicest possible way. I’ve heard the service was shaky here early on, but I didn’t find that to be the case now. Their informal style and sense of humor seem to fit the setting. This isn’t San Francisco, but a relaxed wine-country town where presumably if you come in for dinner you’re planning to spend the evening eating and drinking.
The wine list is stuffed with all manner of Central Coast wines from the big names to the most obscure upstart labels. And wines here come in every variety, from the expected Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Grenache Rosé, Tocai Friulano, Mourvedre and Petit Verdot, all at fair prices.
As for dessert, the banana split is a dressed-up version of the classic, each flavor of ice cream in a separate bowl with its own garnishes and crowned with a pretty, soft meringue cap. The other standout is the six-layer devil’s food chocolate cake laced with dark chocolate ganache and served with both coffee and chocolate ice creams and a mound of softly whipped ice cream. (You might want to share this one.) Or try the intensely rich and satiny butterscotch pudding. Might as well go out on a lilting sweet note.
And if you want to linger past locals’ bedtimes, there’s always the bar at Root 246, actually two bars, one decorated with highbacked white wing chairs, the other with a more conventional look. You can get a quick bite there too, including a Hobbs foot-long hot dog with aged cheddar and housemade pickles, a Caesar or maybe grilled Coachella Valley figs with goat cheese and La Quercia prosciutto. Not bad for a local place.
After a couple of meals at Ogden’s new place, I’m as impressed by his cooking as I have ever been. It’s good to see this quintessentially American chef find a new passion: the Santa Ynez Valley.
Two and a half stars
420 Alisal Road, Solvang; (805) 686-8681; https://www.root-246.com.
Dinner starters, $11 to $21; main courses, $23 to $45; dessert, $4 to $11. Lunch starters, $9 to $12; main courses, $12 to $20. Bar menu, $4 to $15. Corkage fee, $20.
Open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m.; bar menu only on Monday and Tuesday from 4 p.m., and for lunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Full bar. Street and lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.