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by Angela Cotton

written February 8th, 2012

After a long lunch shift at The Laundry, a nausea-inducing drive over the Oakville Grade wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for a Friday night. But the Benziger property at dusk, a toasty oven and a toast-worthy group of Glen Ellen residents proved well worth the twists and turns to an R&D dinner for the Glen Ellen Star, wine country’s wood-fired addition come spring.

I first met Ari Weiswasser, chef/proprietor of the Star, drenched in sweat slicing sous-vide poached lamb tenderloins as a chef de partie at The French Laundry. Even in a kitchen chock-full of the country’s most aspirational culinary talent, Ari exuded a silent professionalism and a natural grace that you see in someone that, frankly, is just plain good at what they do.

And rightly so. Ari’s weighty Michelin-starred resume includes time at New York titles like Daniel, Corton and Gilt and Philly’s Le Bec Fin. Experience has clearly done this guy good.

Decamped from the east coast, Weiswasser headed west in 2010 for Thomas Keller, and found home with wife Erinn Benziger (yep, the Benziger‘s.) along with a gig at The French Laundry.

This past January, Ari left The Laundry, shedding his blue apron and nearly a decade on the line in pursuit of something to call his own. The calling was a wood oven inspired menu, an opportunity to highlight seasonal, local California produce, and the obvious skill and stature of family-in-law and wine legends, the Benziger’s. The answer? Glen Ellen Star- “rustic yet refined” fare serving 30-some seats brick oven based cuisine.

In preparation Glen Ellen Star’s opening, Chef Weiswasser has hosted weekly R&D dinners to help perfect recipes and slate purveyors for his menu’s Spring debut. Lucky enough to find myself amongst Benziger family and friends, plus a few French Laundry fans, we stood in the kitchen sipping house Sauvignon Blanc and watching Ari trade quenelling spoons for terracotta cookware.

Yet even donned in what look like firemen gloves fit for an eagle’s landing and a pizza ‘pitchfork’ to move the cassoulets inside the 350 degree oven, Ari’s finesse and timing are completely on point with the chef I knew and loved in a white apron at the Laundry. He traveled to Seattle to train with professionals using the same ovens, and is well on his way to mastering the science of smoldering. Point blank: he’s done his research, and his food is evidence…

friday february 3, 2012

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gems tossed with grilled escarole, fried bread, and lemon-caper vinaigrette.

cast-iron “quick bread”with local feta, Za’atar and Benziger olive oil.

wood oven roasted beets with harissa “strudel,” citrus and Kent’s oxalis.

blistered ricotta gnudi with prosciutto crudo and wild mint.

red-wine braised shortribs with marinated radicchio and mustard blossoms.

chocolate souffle with salted caramel ice cream.

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Benziger Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010 / Benziger “Tribute” 2007

Also en cue for the menu are a few wood-fired pizzas, paellas, and even a much anticipated whole baby lamb for large, pre-planned parties. Eddie Lopez, pastry sous at The French Laundry, is slated to produce half-pint ice cream in fabulous flavors like bourbon vanilla maple and salted caramel (which, dare I say, is a knockout for the salt savvy).

From the chef I watched from the breezeway of the French Laundry, to the one putting out the coals as he lectured on the geeky mechanics of wood-fired cuisine, I couldn’t help but think. About food, family, friends and the “fire” it seems to capture.

Glen Ellen Star will open late March of 2012. The hot spot in the house? There are 8 bar seats around the open-air oven… actually, make that 7. Mine’s taken.

A huge congratulations to Ari and Erinn, and the rest of the Star team.

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