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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Potato Parmesan Fritter, $6: Bar snacks elevated.
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.
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.