You can thank an argument about horseradish for the Deviled Brussels Sprouts at Santa Rosa’s newly-opened County Bench Kitchen + Bar.
In a quiet moment between lunch and dinner service, Executive Chef Bruce Frieseke (who won a Michelin star during his time at the Applewood Inn) and Chef de Cuisine Ben Davies (Petite Syrah, Spoonbar, Mirepoix) sit at an upstairs table at the restaurant explaining one of their signature dishes—crunchy sprouts with the spicy horseradish creme. But not without the backstory of when Davies cleared the kitchen with noxious horseradish fumes in an early failed experiment.
Determined to prove that fresh, rather than Frieseke’s suggestion of prepared horseradish would prove tastier, Davies put whole chunks of horseradish in a juicer, leaving the staff with eyes burning, throats choking and no one wanting to get anywhere near the kitchen.
“You just couldn’t be in there,” said Davies.
But from the ashes, or more accurately, the pulp, came the idea for crunchy Brussels with whipped horseradish, egg yolks and mayo — Deviled Brussels sprouts — that both chefs eventually created.
Though the two continue to rib each other about Battle Horseradish, that kind of good-natured back and forth, yin and yang, trial and error that make for a unique relationship that seems to be working at this upscale-casual American eatery.
Two Chefs Walk Into A Burger Bar
Davies wasn’t looking for a job when he ran into the Michelin-starred Frieseke in downtown Santa Rosa last fall. After a car crash, he was taking time off from the brutal hours he’d spent in high-profile restaurants in Napa and Sonoma and considering opening a restaurant of his own.
Call it fate, kismet or just random chance, but at that exact moment Frieseke happened to need a chef de cuisine at that moment for a new project, at that time called Craft 535 Kitchen + Bar. The upscale “New American” eatery would be part of restaurateur Sonu Chandi’s expanding Santa Rosa portfolio, which includes several Mountain Mike’s pizzerias, Stout Brothers and the then-yet-to-open Bibi’s Burger Bar that are part of Chandi Restaurant Group.
But there was a kicker: Before Frieseke and Davis could get to work on the chef-inspired restaurant, soon to be renamed County Bench, Chandi needed the two to help open a burger-focused restaurant. The two had their work cut out.
“It was a full court press for six weeks of ten hour days in the restaurant,” said Davies. The restaurant now operates pretty much on its own with cooks implementing their opening menu.
In the spring, the two got down to serious work on the menu for County Bench, which opened in May.
Having spent nearly a year together planning menus, working through construction, hiring and training staff, and spending long days in the kitchen, both chefs seem truly happy to be working together in a custom-designed kitchen, making the food they want to make.
“We’re just two chefs having fun,” says Davies, who isn’t prone to overly-sentimental conversation. “I’m not stressed and freaking out all the time,” he adds. “You can see it in the food. It’s the combination of both of our backgrounds and experiences. We’re not going anywhere,” said Davies.
What’s On The Menu
A mix of small plates and shareable entrees, County Bench is the kind of spot where you can stop in for a bite and a cocktail, have a light lunch, or sit down for some serious grub for brunch or dinner.
Among the shareable dishes: The three-finger thick ribeye ($70). Though some folks reel at the price tag, it’s meant to be divided up among two to four people. In fact, Freiseke says it’s his favorite dish on the menu.
“Look, when you cook a giant piece of meat, it’s amazing, rather than some skinny little piece,” said Frieseke. Along with the ribeye are other dishes meant to be shared: Chicken thighs in pimenton with chorizo and chick peas ($29) or braised lamb shank ($36) with cocoa nibs (reminiscent of a dish at Frieseke’s time as chef at Applewood Inn).
The small plates and appetizers leave more room for experimentation, ranging in price from $4 to $14 (with specials during Happy Hour). Favorites include:
– Popcorn + corn ($4): More than just a bowl of popcorn, it’s dusted with freeze-dried corn, salt and cayenne. Crave-worthy.
– Plated Quinoa Crackers ($8): Housemade crackers with cured salmon and serrano sour cream (also vegetarian with avocado and sumac)
– Crispy chicken drumsticks ($8): Covered with sweet chili sauce and black sesame seeds, we dare you not to devour these.
– Cauliflower, brown butter and braised oxtail ($8): So simple. So amazing. Order it.
– Farro and Ham Hock Salad ($14): Fresh favas, radishes and asparagus (or whatever happens to be in season), make this a healthy, filling lunch or dinner accompaniment.
– Ranch Bowl ($22): It’s hard not to clap with glee at this little house party of steak, pork, steamed greens, cabbage, beets and jasmine rice.
Leave plenty of room for dessert, since pastry chef Victoria Madrigal always has something impressive on the menu. In fact, leave room for a couple of desserts.
More Than Just Food
Though Frieseke and Davies have the spotlight at the restaurant, there are several other high-profile players that have influenced their menu. Chris John, the former sommelier for Cyrus Restaurant, created a wine list that’s exceptional both for Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. There are four small production wines on tap, along with a novel-sized wine list that focuses on a few classic regions, with a depth of vintages. Paul Ammerman, who relocated from NYC, is obsessive about the restaurant’s craft cocktail program, and you’ll find incredibly unique offerings on the constantly changing cocktail menu.
“Once we saw the wine list, we said, ‘Oh, the food really has to match the level of the wine list and cocktail program,” said Davies.
With a slow and steady start as the staff is trained and the dishes continue to evolve they’re reaching that goal, with an ever-changing lineup of dishes inspired by Sonoma County’s seasons, a little horseradish and two chefs having fun in the kitchen.
The County Bench Kitchen + Bar, 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 535-0700. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday from 11:30a.m. to 2:30p.m. and 5 to 11p.m (12:30a.m. on Friday).; Dinner Saturday – Monday; Brunch from 10a.m. to 2p.m. Sunday. thecountybench.com.