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Best Risotto in Sonoma? Santa Rosa’s County Bench, Take 2

Downtown Santa Rosa restaurant gets a menu makeover for spring. And it's really, really good.

Petrale sole with artichoke hearts, braised octopus, dandelion, French flageolet beans at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD
Petrale sole with artichoke hearts, braised octopus, dandelion, French flageolet beans at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

When it opened last summer, County Bench was an exciting addition to the Santa Rosa dining scene, showcasing the talents of two of Sonoma County’s top chefs, with a brilliant bar program, a chic urban space and impressive wine list. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Dishes were alternately brilliant and a bit confusing, and some early service hiccups just didn’t do the upscale-dining spot justice.

Farro risotto with green garlic, kale and parmesan at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

The great news is that there have been a lot of changes since then. Chef Ben Davies has taken over the kitchen of this downtown Santa Rosa eatery, giving it a new point of view and a simplified menu with broader appeal.

Service has been given a thorough polishing by their new general manager, and the bar program has been evened out to include a handful of show-stoppers along with solid renditions of classics. We’re also stoked to see value-priced locals nights ($35 prix fixe on Tuesday) happy hour and free corkage until May 1.

Seasonal cocktails (l) La Vie En Rose with rose water syrup, gin, grapefruit juice (r) El Tajin with tequila, Bruto, lime juice, chamomile. Heather Irwin/PD
Seasonal cocktails (l) La Vie En Rose with rose water syrup, gin, grapefruit juice (r) El Tajin with tequila, Bruto, lime juice, chamomile. Heather Irwin/PD

The menu has just gone through a seasonal transition to lighter spring ingredients, the last of the recent changes, and there are some solid bets worth checking out, along with a few standbys that have impressed us since opening.

Make sure to leave room for dessert, since their pastry chef, Victoria Madrigal (formerly of Della Fattoria) is one of the best on the sweets scene.

Granita at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/Sonoma Magazine.

Quinoa cracker with smoked salmon, dill, capers, $7: This crunchy cracker is made in house, topped with lox, cream cheese and all the fixings of your favorite Jewish deli in a few bites.

Quinoa cracker with smoked salmon, dill, capers, onions, cream cheese and cucumber. Heather Irwin/PD
Quinoa cracker with smoked salmon, dill, capers, onions, cream cheese and cucumber. Heather Irwin/PD

Buttermilk Potato Rolls, $5: Paying for bread at a restaurant still irks some, but personally, I’d rather pay for something well-made than stale, unimpressive slices. These are puffy little pillows in the Parker House style with Straus butter and olive oil.

Potato rolls at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Photo: Heather Irwin/PD
Potato rolls at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Photo: Heather Irwin/PD

Farro Risotto, $22: A serious candidate for my “Best Dishes of the Year”, Davies knows the secret of perfectly cooked risotto — something that eludes most cooks. The spring version includes green garlic, crunchy baked kale and curls of Parmesan cheese, for a dish dripping with umami.

Farro risotto with green garlic, kale, and Parmesan at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather irwin/PD
Farro risotto with green garlic, kale, and Parmesan at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather irwin/PD

Potato Parmesan Fritter, $6: Bar snacks elevated.

Crispy potato Parmesan fritter with chive sour cream at County Bench restaurant in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD
Crispy potato Parmesan fritter with chive sour cream at County Bench restaurant in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

Roasted Hamachi Collar, $14: One of the best, most flavorful parts of the fish is the “collar” area (where a neck might be on a fish). With fennel, soy and ginger, it’s a revelation.

Grilled Cheese with Shot Rib ($5): The happy hour menu is a steal of a deal, with comfort dishes like a hearty grilled cheese with Red Bird seeded bread, Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel cheese and short ribs.

Pan Roasted Petrale Sole, $26: Updated for spring, this humble piece of fish gets a light breading, served atop delicate white flageolet beans and lemon curd. Bits of pink octopus have a gentle chew, rather than being gummy, with an essence of the sea, rather than a sleeper wave to the tastebuds.

Petrale sole with artichoke hearts, braised octopus, dandelion, French flageolet beans at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD
Petrale sole with artichoke hearts, braised octopus, dandelion, French flageolet beans at County Bench in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

Meyer Lemon and Moscato Granita, $7: This tart-sweet jewel box of a dessert is almost too pretty to eat, with blood orange “pearls” and lemon peel, it’s a perfect spring palate cleanser. You’ll end up wishing the whole thing was a Slurpee flavor at 7-11. Seriously.

County Bench is at 535 Fourth St, Santa Rosa, 707-535-0700, thecountybench.com.

Bartender making a seasonal cocktail with grapefruit at County Bench Restaurant in Santa Rosa, Heather Irwin/PD
Bartender making a seasonal cocktail with grapefruit at County Bench Restaurant in Santa Rosa, Heather Irwin/PD

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Comments

7 thoughts on “Best Risotto in Sonoma? Santa Rosa’s County Bench, Take 2

  1. I had one of the worst service and dining experiences not once but twice there???? We were waiting and waiting for our drinks the bartender was busy and the owner was busy chatting with some young girls. Both times it was 7:30 mid week and not busy, so you would think service and food would have shined.

  2. I have a confession. I read this article and rolled my eyes at the “best risotto in the county” and “best dish of the year” contender statements. As Mike F. states above, I too agree that the best risotto is had at Rosso. Not to mention the County Bench’s is VEGETARIAN and made with Farro, “um, not thanks” I thought. But intrigued by the menu change, I found myself there tonight, contemplating my entree choices and choosing the risotto out of sheer contempt and on a mission to reassure myself that this article was a Trump-ish attempt to make what isn’t, is. So I ordered it. Now I don’t know exactly what heppened… I dont like kale. Or even Farro (I don’t think)… but this dish was phenominal. Unbelievably good and executed so flawlessly, I had ano out of body moment of carnivorous abandon as I wept not a single tear for the missing protein from the dish. Heather, you were right. I was wrong. The County Bench has come roaring back and this dish is at the forefront of their quiet little comeback. Farro… whoda thunk it.

  3. Risotto is made with rice, arborio usually. Using Faro is creative, but its not risotto.

    It would be like making Tournedos de forestiere with lamb.

  4. Rosso in Santa Rosa has what in my opinion the most remarkable risotto.. While their pizzas are outstanding, the risotto is just otherworldly. If you’re a risotto fan, you absolutely must try it

    Thanks for this nice review of County Bench…due to this article, I’ll surely give it a try

  5. I have loved this restaurant since it opened despite the townsquare construction in its front yard. It is a welcome addition to downtown Santa Rosa and I go often and take friends to try it each time I go. Nice space, great food, good drinks and great management. Looking forward to the Spring menu.

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