The County Bench: Santa Rosa's Newest Culinary Hot Spot

When a new restaurant opens in town, you can be sure I am ready to make a visit. The downtown Santa Rosa restaurant scene has steadily been on the rise with recent additions to its already very eclectic and pleasing array of culinary options. The County Bench is Santa Rosa's newest restaurant and with its soft opening back in May 2016, downtown's culinary prowess has stepped it up a notch.

My husband and I decided to make a reservation on a Saturday night at 7:30pm, and when we walked in, the place was bustling. The chic look and feel of The County Bench could have placed this new restaurant in one of the country's top dining-destination cities, and I believe that is exactly the target at which wine country fine-dining is aiming—proving that you don't have to be a major city to be home to some of the world's most talented culinary artists.

The County Bench has a super-star culinary duo: including Chef de Cuisine Ben Davies, a Michel-starred chef with experience at Mirepoix and Meadowood; and Executive Chef Bruce Frieseke, whose past culinary experience includes esteemed restaurants in Sonoma County, San Francisco and France. Accompanying this duo is a trio of beverage all-stars from the world—Wine Director Chris John, Certified Sommelier Matt Dulle and Mixologist Paul Ammerman.

Located right on the Old Courthouse Square, the County Bench presents itself as the perfect opportunity for a Sonoma County date night, nestled right in the middle of the bustling center of town. Post-dinner, downtown offers movie theaters and bars within easy walking distance.

During our visit, I was reminded once again of the rustic theme that it seems all wine country restaurants are adhering to these days. The large interior space was comprised of brick walls and large wooden beams and posts, and while big, the atmosphere was very intimate. Dim lighting aided that sense of intimacy and cushioned seats, as well as high-back cushioned booths along the restaurant’s edges, made for a very comfortable space.

We started our meal with the deviled Brussels sprouts, which were tasty little bites that juxtaposed tender and crispy textures, with a tangy pickled flavor matched by lemon and vinegar.

The grilled short ribs with chipotle adobo, cabbage, crema and lime were next, and they were packed with flavor in their tender juiciness. The chipotle spice lingered on the palate and provided a tasty contrast against the fresh cabbage. This little starter also paired brilliantly with the Saint-Joseph that we ordered.

The 2014 Aurélien Chatagnier Saint-Joseph was no doubt young, but still delightful in its elegant style. Aromatically very floral and rocky at first with crushed stones, raspberries and faint dried cherries, this enticing aromatic profile finished with meaty and smoky scents. The palate is stony and full of texture—light but rich in its elegance—with a structured profile full of blueberry and raspberry fruit. Fresh, juicy and downright elegant, this was a real palate-pleaser—both on its own and when matched up next to our main courses.

Fall off the bone tender like your Grandma knows how to cook it, the California braised lamb shank with cocoa nib, chicories, Sherry reduction and mint chimichurri couldn’t have been a more perfect pairing with the Saint-Joseph. This heavenly shank melted in your mouth, with the cocoa nibs giving a rich complexity and the Sherry reduction bringing an energy to the weight of it all. The wine’s smoky components really synergized with the shank’s excellent charred edges. This plate was a real feast.

Another fantastic main was the double pork chop served with vinegar pearl onions, Shisito peppers and grilled corn. This pork chop was excellently seared and full of sweet and savory flavors. It was a wonderful summer dish, very light, but still full of flavor and complexity. Because the Saint-Joseph was so elegant and lively, it didn’t overpower the pork chop at all.

To finish the fantastic meal, we opted for one of the chefs’ more unique creations: bananas torched crème brûlée style and layered between a thin, wafer-like crisp with hazelnut crème and cocoa dustings. A texturally playful dessert, this was sweet, but light at the same time—my favorite way to end a decadent meal.

While I focused on wine during this meal—and let me tell you that they have an excellent and very lengthy selection of both local and international wines—The County Bench also has a fantastic cocktail program. I’ll surely be back soon to taste some of the classics like the mint julep, and some of their more obscure creations like the ‘patootie,’ which is made of strawberry, rose, szechuan and rhum agricole.

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