Chef Joshua Smookler tested nearly 100 pizza doughs for his new restaurant, Golden Bear Station in Kenwood, and he’s still tweaking it. The moisture, the flour, the “secret ingredient” he declines to share, the temperature of the wood-fired oven, and even the weather are all critical to the final result — a crust dotted with leopard spots, neither too burnt nor too raw, but just right.
Golden Bear Station, which Smookler owns with his wife, Heidy He, is a departure for the couple who opened the critically acclaimed Animo in 2022. Where that now-shuttered dining experience focused on live-fire cooking with Mediterranean and Korean influences and luxe ingredients like whole turbot, Golden Bear is an homage to Italy. Mostly.
He and Smookler shrug off being pigeonholed into specific categories, and the new menu, which leans heavily on gourmet pizzas and pasta, also includes a hamburger, tuna crudo, whole lamb saddle, and the Asian-inspired pork chop in dashi broth, or lobster in XO sauce with lemongrass tea, which was previously on the Animo menu. (Animo is slated to reopen in 2024 with a new concept).
However, what binds the menu together is just how extraordinary everything is.
Take something as simple-sounding as cacio e pepe or bucatini pasta with pepper. Here, it’s elevated to include seven different kinds of pepper, giving it a spicy punch that lingers on the tongue. There’s an option to add fresh uni, adding a creamy, briny, sweet accent to the pasta that elevates it even further. Pasta Bolognese is equally impressive, with meat and tomato sauce sticking to every centimeter of the fresh pasta that’s made in-house.
Raw scallops are thinly sliced into disks and stacked in basil oil, green tomato, and finger limes, again a flavor bomb of sweet mollusk, tart citrus, and aromatic vegetable notes.
Pizzas are a highlight, perfectly cooked without the bitter notes of char. The soft, chewy dough has a puffed crust and enough heft in the middle to hold onto the Boscaiola pie, topped with fresh mushrooms, sharp fontina cheese, and truffles. The pork chop is breaded katsu-style with umami-laded dashi sauce pooling under it.
He is deft at providing wine (or beer) pairings, usually featuring approachable wines that aren’t too precious to drink with the hearty dishes.
While the menu will inevitably evolve, there’s no doubt that the obsessive amount of time and practice will lead to even more revelatory menu items. That’s the draw of Smookler and He — their passion for exhaustive research on even the simplest dishes.
8445 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, goldenbearstation.com (no phone).