The County Bench Kitchen + Bar
535 4th St.
Santa Rosa, CA
New American cuisine
Lunch Tuesday through Friday; Sunday brunch; dinner hours vary by day, check website for details
Entrees: $12 (individual)-$70 (for the table)
Extensive wine list, full bar
Newly opened in downtown Santa Rosa, The County Bench combines high style with a hip vibe to create the perfect venue for both date nights and friendly gatherings. The long, narrow room features a sleek stone and wood bar and modern furnishings, with accents that have a retro feel. A separate, upstairs room can accommodate up to 25 guests; it’s part of regular dining availability but can also be rented for private parties.
Chefs Bruce Frieseke and Ben Davies have created a menu that combines the best of Wine Country cuisine with some unexpected twists, and head sommelier Matt Dulle is knowledgeable and skilled.
We started with a glass of Banshee Chardonnay (crisp fruit, toast and a hint of vanilla) and “Penicillin,” a craft cocktail containing “scotch, more scotch, ginger and lemon.” Shaken until frothy and poured over ice, it was a zingy palate opener.
Our first hint of something surprising was the deviled Brussels sprouts. The lightly cooked sprouts were halved and their innermost leaves removed, then filled with a creamy deviled egg mixture and a hint of horseradish. Each bite-size piece was rich and robust.
Our second appetizer was truly addictive: popcorn+corn, which is traditional popcorn topped with butter, Hungarian paprika and dehydrated corn powder. Sounds weird, I know, but the corn powder adds a fresh corn taste, so it’s like eating popped corn-on-the-cob. If you’re just stopping in for a cocktail, order this to accompany it. Thank me later.
A bowl of crispy fingerling potatoes arrived piping hot and well spiced. They smelled fantastic and we couldn’t wait for them to cool. Luckily, Dulle poured some refreshing Brasserie de Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts classic golden ale to ease the burn. The potatoes were tender with crispy edges and served with a sesame, lemon and garlic aioli.
Grilled short ribs were seasoned with chipotle adobo and came with pickled red onion slices and a cabbage slaw with crema and lime. The thin slices of meat were tender and flavorful, the slaw added crunch and richness and the onions contributed tang and brightness.
We also enjoyed a small plate of lightly grilled adobo peppers (a special that evening), which were served warm and sprinkled with coriander salt and lime zest. They popped when bitten, and their varying levels of heat made each one a little surprise. I switched to Dönnhoff “Oberhauser Leistenberg” Kabinett Riesling (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling blend), which had just the right sweetness to balance the spice.
The next dishes arrived together for a main course extravaganza: a “3 finger thick” ribeye, roasted carrots with fenugreek yogurt, cauliflower with braised oxtail and naan bread fresh from the in-house tandoor oven. Dulle treated us to wine selections from the restaurant’s by-the-glass program, which features some remarkable selections (thanks to a Wine Station system that ensures freshness up to 60 days after opening the bottle). A 2005 J. Rochioli Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley) was full-bodied, with lots of red fruit and smooth tanins, while my husband’s 1999 CVNE Rioja Gran Reserva (Spain) was meaty, deep and rich.
Served with horseradish aioli, a light salad of navy beans and chopped green beans, and a small bowl of chopped mushrooms and garlic, the ribeye (enough to share among three to four people) was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and each accompaniment added a distinct flavor enhancement. The cauliflower and oxtail was a standout combination, with the lightly cooked cauliflower absorbing the meat’s rich and sweet flavors and adding a lovely texture to each bite. The carrots, too, were cooked just tender, and their natural sweetness was balanced by the tangy and slightly nutty fenugreek yogurt. The naan bread, served with small dishes of oil and honey, was delicate, soft and chewy—delicious.
We concluded our meal by sharing a brûlee banana and chocolate hazelnut stack with a glass of Rare Wine Co. (RWC) New York Malmsey Madeira. The wine’s chocolate and honey notes perfectly complimented the decadent but light dessert. Smooth, creamy banana and crisp rum tuilles were layered with hazelnut crème anglaise; all the flavors and textures played together for a beautiful end to a delicious meal.
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