Santa Maria Sun / Eats
First & Oak, Solvang's fine French dining spot, will hook you with each plate
This week’s review is more than that. It’s a story.
But first, take note: I approach this food column not as a platform to showcase the pretentious musings of a food and wine connoisseur (being that I know nothing about food), but rather as an excuse to experience as many types of food and drink as I can find.
This week, I went French.
I ate at the First & Oak restaurant at the Mirabelle Inn in Solvang, and I came away from the evening wanting to write a poem about it, not a critique.
But just as I can’t make food, I can’t write poetry. I can, however, write stories. So here’s the tale of my evening spent at First & Oak.
I showed up at the restaurant’s doorstep just in time for my 5:30 p.m. reservation, at which point a kitty trotted up to me asking for love. I obliged, setting me back a few minutes, but I was still the restaurant’s first customer.
My waiter, Mark, explained the menu to me: It’s split into four sections—garden, ocean, farm, and “to finish”—each containing a selection of small plates. A well-rounded dining experience pulls from each menu section, he said.
I listened to Mark and chose one plate from each section, as shown in the photos here.
The plates weren’t just tasty—they were engaging. Everything from the flavors to the presentation to the varieties of texture interested me. The whipped cauliflower and crisp quinoa created a beautiful dissonance. The roasted lobster, surrounded on its plate by curry flavors, packed a pleasant punch. The roasted duck with garbanzo and hazelnut combined seamlessly. And the strawberries and cream was a no-brainer with a twist.
If I returned to First & Oak again next week, I’d repeat none of my orders—but only because those plates sparked my curiosity about the entire menu. I want to know all of it. (Except for the snails. I’m OK without the snails.)
I was starting on the duck and watching my new kitty friend play on the front patio outside the window when the restaurant’s second customer entered. Mark seemed to know the man, greeting him familiarly and starting his order as if it was routine. Mark later introduced him to me: Bernie, or Bernard Rosenson, co-owns the restaurant and inn along with Coquelicot Estate Vineyard in Solvang.
Bernie addressed me from his table across the dining room: “Do you know who this is?” he asked, referring to the female French vocalist playing through the restaurant’s sound system.
“No,” I lied. (I’d just Shazamed her like two minutes earlier.)
“It’s Édith Piaf,” Bernie explained, as “Hyme à L’amour” floated in the air. “You know the saying: wine, women, and song. This is song, what you’re listening to right here.”
He then segued into a monologue on white wine, with which he believes every meal should start.
“Just drink and watch the world go by,” Bernie advised, swirling his half-emptied glass of riesling. “Enjoy life.”
After my dessert, I joined Bernie at his table and learned a little more about his background. He spent his childhood in France, relocating to the U.S. at age 10. He worked in the medical field for 38 years before retiring to grow grapes and make wine. He’s since opened Coquelicot, which was recently certified organic—part of Bernie’s effort to slow mankind’s destruction of Earth, he said.
“My effort is a tiny little microcosm compared to what needs to be done,” he said. And he’s spread those efforts to First & Oak—most of the menu is locally sourced from organic ingredients.
The restaurant and inn have been around since 1993, but Bernie and his son Jonathan bought the place last July and re-opened it in January. Chef Steven Snook—who graduated from culinary school in his native England before working in several Michelin Star restaurants and for six years with Gordon Ramsay—took over the kitchen at First & Oak’s re-opening. He focuses on building culinary experiences from the produce of local, artisan growers and winemakers.
I left the restaurant feeling full to the brim and relaxed with a sensation I hadn’t experienced since my time in Paris last winter. If you eat the right food, listen to the right music, and enjoy the right stories from the right person, France will seep right into your skin. That’s what I found at First & Oak. Go find it for yourself.
Brenna Swanston ate a fiber bar for breakfast this morning and it made her sad. Email your best and worst meal stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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