Dining Outside at Glen Ellen Star

The incredible beef bolognese bianco pizza at Glen Ellen Star.
The incredible beef bolognese bianco pizza at Glen Ellen Star.

For years, so many respected chefs in the Bay Area have raved to me about Glen Ellen Star. Last week, I finally made it to this beloved restaurant in Sonoma County, and it thoroughly lived up to the fanfare.

So much so, that it was even worth dining outside there in — gulp — 38-degree weather.

Oh, yes, I did that.

Who knew when I planned this outing that our early-spring T-shirt weather would give way in a snap to thermals and down jacket frigid temperatures?

But my husband and I soldiered on. And now, we feel like we can tackle anything, especially when fortified with food as stellar as this.

The tented outdoor dining area at the front of the restaurant.
The tented outdoor dining area at the front of the restaurant.

The outdoor tables are set up at the front of the restaurant with party-like tents covering three sides. The back of the chairs are even draped with blankets, a thoughtful touch should you need to envelop yourself in one. Squat portable heaters provided a good amount of warmth, especially as the staff kept bringing out additional ones as the night wore on. If you notice a red cast to some of my photos, that’s actually from the glow given off by the heaters.

Chef Ari Weiswassner and his wife Ellen Benziger-Weiswassner (yes, she of the famed Benziger Winery family in Glen Ellen) opened their restaurant a decade ago. The two met in college, then moved to New York for a few years, where Ari worked at Daniel, Picholine and Corton. After moving back to Wine Country, Ari worked at the French Laundry for two years.

His pedigree shows, not in fussy, tweezer-type food here, but rustic dishes, many cooked in a wood-fired oven, with every detail done exactly right.

House-made bread that rivals -- even tops -- that at many artisan bakeries.
House-made bread that rivals — even tops — that at many artisan bakeries.

The bread ($14) is house-made, and you will kick yourself if you don’t order it. The small boule arrives warm, and studded with olives and raisins for a sweet-salty taste. A crock of soft butter with a drizzle of olive oil in the center comes alongside for further embellishment. The bread is crusty on the outside, and chewy-spongy within. It’s so good that I’d come here for the bread alone.

And yet, there’s so much more to rival it, including the pizza. There are three to choose from on this concise menu. The white sauce one ($26) tastes like a grand pasta sauce atop a great crust. Indeed, it’s beef bolognese bianco made with a touch of cream instead of tomato sauce, which lets the taste of the meat come through more, highlighting its mild sweetness like that of veal. A hail of arugula was strewn overtop the bronzed crust that was puffy on the edges, crisp at the center, redolent of a long ferment like that of artisan bread, and seasoned well with just enough salt.

Lamb shoulder pasta.
Lamb shoulder pasta.

Radiatori pasta ($33) was fortified with tender lamb shoulder done puttanesca-style with artichokes, garlic, olives, and tomatoes, plus a puddle of soft Greek yogurt to add a touch of creaminess.

The wood-roasted whole fish ($46) was branzino. It comes to the table fully deboned, with the cavity stuffed with cubes of roasted sweet potato and red onions. The flesh was incredibly moist and the skin beautifully crisp like potato chips. A swipe of sikil pak lay underneath, a pumpkin seed dip with a just a hint of spice.

Wood-roasted whole branzino.
Wood-roasted whole branzino.
Another view shows the sweet potatoes and red onions stuffed inside.
Another view shows the sweet potatoes and red onions stuffed inside.

When we ordered dessert, our server joked that “Of course, you pick the only one that’s served warm!” Hey, can you blame us? I can never resist sticky toffee pudding ($16) to begin with, and especially on a night that hovered just above freezing.

The sizeable sticky toffee pudding.
The sizeable sticky toffee pudding.

You’d do well to share this sticky toffee pudding because it is huge — about 6-inches in diameter. I’m not sure how one person could ever finish an entire one after a meal, even if it made for heavenly bite after heavenly bite. The cake arrives warm in its own cast-iron pan, which makes for edges that get delightfully crisp in contrast to the soft interior. With the sweet warmth of Medjool dates in the batter, and a coffee-toffee sauce poured over the top, it’s a dessert that’s as comforting as a big hug.

Now that I’ve finally eaten at Glen Ellen Star, not even a blizzard would stop me from going back.

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  • We had the tenderest, most mouth-watering steak ever and an out-of-the-world pasta dish at Glen Ellen Star last year! Savored every bite.

  • Hi Barbara: But did you eat it outside in 38-degree weather? LOL I’m sure Meat Boy has that steak on his radar for when we go back again.

  • I’m very impressed with your eating outside on such a cold night and making it all the way through dessert. The food sounds great but especially the wood roasted whole branzino with sweet potatoes.

  • Hi Karen: The experience was a little crazy, but I wear it as a badge of honor now. LOL I feel like if I could brave that temperature to eat outdoors, I can withstand most any other obstacle now. 😉

  • Just about to book this restaurant…. for mid-September. If you had a choice would you eat inside or outside, for ambience etc?

  • Hi Emily: I’ve only eaten outdoors there, just because of Covid precautions. And on a nice summer night, the outdoor tables are lovely. The restaurant has two indoor dining rooms that are sweet and cozy. You can’t go wrong, either way. I’m sure you’ll much enjoy the food there. 😉

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