Root 246–Seeing Pink

Sitting down with the new chef at Root 246 in Solvang, you notice her excitement is clearly difficult to contain. It takes well into a conversation about her food ideals and directional goals for the restaurant before it slips she has had her eye on this dream-position for some time. Right time/right place it turns out: “There just happens to be a top spot to fill at Root 246.” “You don’t say!” And here we are. Coming into a Santa Ynez Valley LANDMARK with a fresh remodel, dining room and lounge personalizations, intent on not upsetting the Rib-Eye-and-Seared-Scallops-with-a-glass-of-Chardonnay-crowd, but steadfast on churning the menu into the 21st century, with all the California ideals we are getting used to seeing: Fresh. Local. Sustainably-sourced. Un-stuffy. Wood-fired. Rustic. Comfort. Affordable. It struck her odd none of the employees had ever dined at the restaurant. “We can’t afford this. And we don’t eat this kind of food anyway.” Well: Change is here.

Fried chicken is the cool renaissance food everyone rolls their eyes at but still orders guiltily and has become the staple of gastro-pub and comfort-casual. No waffles here. And no honey or maple syrup. This presentation is sandwiched between buttery starch and pickles. Fat slabs of well-marinated cucumbers teetering somewhere between dill and bread & butter balanced on forests of bright, crispy dry breading covering meat visibly moist and steaming. The base of this dish was a healthy serving of coarsely mashed potatoes, visibly yellow from the butter- or Yukon-content. Somewhat of a yin-yang dish for the seriously hungry.

By all means GET the Smoked Fish & Roe Crostini. Smoked White Sea Bass and Salmon eggs on rustic toasts slathered in crème fraiche and of course fresh dill weed. A beautiful presentation, classic pairing and combination of flavors and textures. A beautiful beautiful appetizer I would order again and again.

Pâté will always grab my eye on any menu. An interesting presentation: rustic dark triangles of toast pre-buttered with the chicken liver paste and sprinkled with crinkly miniature onion rings. This will be a huge hit with the avocado toast demographic, but I prefer to break, dab & stab my toast and pâté. I’m not running out the door to catch an Uber with my lunch–I’m sitting here with a knife in one hand preparing for a 2-hour meal. Taste of pate very good, but presentation a little too Ready-To-Eat for this diner.

Point Reyes blue, chili-pralined nuts and tart apple slices with barely a breath of acid make the salad SMART for a restaurant with a comprehensive wine list, and gets an extra point from me.

A duet of charred heirloom carrots made a vegetarian bright-spot on the small plates section. The world needs more lowly vegetables served al-dente and simply. The sauce underneath was incredible. It was yellow stuff and I had to look it up. Wasn’t hollandaise. Wasn’t béarnaise. Wasn’t moutarde. Wasn’t fresh mayo. Wait for it: Turmeric Yogurt. Everything this girl puts on something is something you *think* is something but it turns out to be something completely different. And I just want to go on record as saying there can never be too many pistachios on anything.

You are going to want a margarita from the bar with the shrimp! All kinds of south-western magic going on here, from the healthy char and mild red seasoning to the fat slather of mole. You’ll be looking around for something else to wipe up all that sauce with.

Brussels Sprouts absolutely SLAYED it. Best I’ve ever had. Sesame a nice touch. Chef admitted later they were deep-fried before final broiling. WHY DOES BOILING IN GREASE MAKE EVERYTHING SO GOOD??? Us gourmets laugh and discuss food-trends ad nauseam, ticking back the years and trends which emerged in long 20… 30-year histories, applauding the demise of almost all: but OH MAN of all the food-trends I have witnessed, Brussells Sprouts is the one I NEVER want to be over. Sure, it has become almost a litmus on the app menu, but I’m not complaining. EAT YOUR VEGETABLES.

Speaking of trends, do you think octopus may be waning? The ‘sentient’ argument hasn’t really taken grip the way I thought it would, and everywhere I go I eagerly order, as it is fun to compare different kitchens and recipes. Here, it rests on a thick starchy stew of cannellini beans and vegetables. I think it is the first time I have seen octopus as an entree. That’s not necessarily a complaint–just be warned this dish is really REALLY substantial. This is literally a lumberjack meal the whole table can share or take home for DAYS of lunch-fare. This is not my favorite version of octopus in the area. The tips of the tentacles were roasted crunchy and the meaty sections were done so the charred ‘skin’ was separating from the meat with a slippery, almost slimy definition between. And back to that “stew”. It was somewhat brown glomp. It lacked definition and texture. My mind reels with easy possibilities of exciting this stuff up. I love beans. I love stew. I love octopus. I didn’t love this dish. Oh, but bacon. You saw those crispy chunks of bacon, right?

Steak frites or hanger & fries really really really simple, beautiful cut of meat, presentation fairly pub-normal with meat perched on top of the coarse fries in thick slices. Like the octopus, you have to move your food in order to eat it. Doneness perfect; meat gorgeous; fries appeared to be parred & rested FOR THE EXTRA POINT. They had a fairly proper opaque crust and a moist doughy innard which separated from crust and gave off visible steam when cracked open and served. Again, a little simple for this setting–not necessarily ‘rustic’ this time–just pub-simple. I see what she’s doing here, but a little herb butter or poivre sauce or shoestrings would go a long way to charm this dish up into the white-collar crime demographic. Elbow-to-elbow at a noisy bar? Yes, but in this dining room it kinda felt like it was off the kid’s menu.

OSSO BUCO! This is one of those huge caveats on the *brown glomp* conversation! This dish will ALWAYS be brown glomp–and what lovely brown glomp it is. Every cuisine has a bad cut of meat reduced by hours of stewing with vegetables and broth and here is one of Italy’s. This is a fine version. Turnips excellent and a nice touch. We need more turnips on menus (maybe add them to carrot dish with a little of that aforementioned char on them??). The coarse dark wild-ricy pilaf bedding was almost my favorite. The classic gremolata a nice touch. Osso Buco needs lemon, and here we have it. An interesting interpretation at a decidedly non-Italian restaurant.

Desserts were completely inspired. Ice cream sandwich between two fat butterscotch ‘Blondie’ cookies rides a brilliant trend and the cookie was amazing and the filling too… Definitely something a 4-top can divide. The brownie at the bottom of the pot-du-creme was stupidly good and the treasure at the bottom of a long list of It-can’t-get-any-better-than-this’s. The cast iron was a nice lodgy touch to the huckleberry muffin–the custard an impressive take. Brilliant desserts which bridged the gap between white table cloth classics, comfort favorites and wood-fired hipster unpretentious extremely well. Better than the some of the menu items.

Seeing Chef Pink hold court in this vast expanse of multiple dining rooms, lounges and bars is quite a change from the cramped 20-odd tops of Bacon & Brine, her now-closed former charge. And she has definitely upset the apple-cart in terms of dishes and presentation. I see where she is going with the rustic-comfort and lowering prices and substantial plates but it is going to be a challenge balancing the two styles–and ofttimes their respective demographics. A little polish on the plates will go a long way. This style of food makes the restaurant seem warmer and cozier, more of a place that would have a smokier ceiling, a visible kitchen perhaps. With this airy new format–all this glass, rock and stainless steel–the dishes certainly are a contrast, and–along with the great service and AWESOME wine-list–make this the new *complete package* dining spot in Solvang. It’s a tough job to *rustic-up* in a LUX, classic setting like Root 246, but Chef certainly is off to a good start. This is the new destination restaurant in town–one which will appeal to all ages, price-points, settings and styles. ALL are welcome at Chef Pink’s table!


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