Tuesday, October 23, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Chef Steven Snook shines at First and Oak in Solvang


For months now I’ve had First and Oak on my list of must-try spots, and I finally broke down on a chilly Tuesday night and ventured out to Solvang to see what everyone’s been talking about. It turned out to be one of the best dining experiences of my entire life.

First and Oak’s concept is basically to take the standard idea of a restaurant meal and fling it right out the door. Rather than choosing a traditional “appetizer, entree, dessert,” diners are asked to create their own tasting menus from four selections in five courses rather inventive progressions. Most options on the menu are tasting portions, meaning they are small enough to allow you try several different things (there are some full-portion options as well). This is an especially exceptional treat when you consider just whose food you’re eating.

Trust in First and Oak to have the freshest fish on their menu. Their sea bass features truffle puree and thick cut asparagus spears, dressed with a tarragon and mushroom vinaigrette.

First and Oak’s chef is Steven Snook, a British chef with a jaw-dropping pedigree who spent six years working under none other than Gordon Ramsay. Snook has spent most of his career in Michelin Star restaurants and it shows in every bite of his delicately refined and distinct food.

The first course is generally lighter fare, meant to slowly introduce your palate to some of the underlying ideas at First and Oak. We chose the aerated fermented kimchi cracklings (I will explain more about this later) and smoked sweet and spicy duck wings with chili and peach agrodolce and fresh chives.

One of the best things about the meal was all the little surprises that pop up in every dish, such as the agrodolce on the duck wings. Agrodolce is an Italian sweet and sour sauce, made with vinegar and a reduction of a sugar like honey, or in this case, I’m assuming peaches (please Chef Snook, correct me if I’m wrong). What’s so nice about this agrodolce is the perfect balance between sweetness and heat; it never felt like I was eating extreme hot wings, but my mouth still got that wonderful taste of the chile. Balance is an underestimated god in cooking, and Snook is a master at understanding the importance of properly proportioned flavors. Every bite was harmonious; every part of the palate was stimulated in the experience.

Duck wings, flavored with sweet and spicy agrodolce sauce, are a part of the first course of First and Oak’s menu in Solvang. The menu is a series of five courses featuring four different tasting options, meant to break the diner out of the traditional restaurant rut.

About those kimchi cracklings: We were stunned. First of all, it’s a huge portion that essentially looks like a giant chicharon but tastes like kimchi. How does one even turn fermented cabbage into a crispy crackling? Even after it was explained to me I still had to do a Scooby-Doo “Ruh?” take. Basically, the kimchi is pureed with tapioca powder, left to dry, then dusted with the powder and fried. Or they just summon a food witch to cast a spell on it and turn into a delicious thing you dip in garlic aioli sauce. I’m not exactly clear on that.

The next course, called “From the Garden,” features a variety of vegetable dishes (and a pâté dish which we of course had to get). It was highly recommended to me to get the truffled roasted cauliflower, and it was simply perfection. The dish is a tremendously elegant bite of food, made with whipped cauliflower, crispy quinoa, and a chive vinaigrette. Here, Snook really embraces the idea of playing with textures using a vegetable that you might not immediately associate with fine dining. The cauliflower is the perfect vessel to hold the complexities of those flavors.

First and Oak’s risotto dish includes morel mushrooms roasted in butter, preserved lemon, fava beans, and confit rabbit. The dish is the brainchild of Chef Steven Snook, who spent six years working under chef and television star Gordon Ramsay.

Next up is the seafood course (“From the Ocean”) which is something First and Oak prides itself on. We ordered the sea bass and the Spanish octopus, both of which exceeded all expectations. The char on the octopus was sublime, and it was probably our favorite dish of the night, after the cauliflower. The other pleasantly surprising thing about First and Oak is that those tasting portions (which I expected to be on the smaller size) are actually pretty generous.

The next to last course (“From the Farm”) featured heartier plates of meats like duck and Wagyu beef. We selected the pork belly (which my fiance never ever turns down), and I got the confit rabbit risotto. First and Oak’s kimchi makes its second appearance of the evening, served with pork belly and 63 degree egg. That’s an egg that is placed in a controlled temperature bath and cooked for—I kid you not—one hour.

It’s that kind of loving attention to detail with a laser focus on fresh ingredients that sets First and Oak apart. This isn’t an ordinary dining experience; it’s an elevated glimpse into the keen mind of a true master chef, one attempting to create something new in the whole farm-to-table movement and have a bit of fun while he’s at it. Snook is truly doing something magical at First and Oak and it would be a crime for anyone to miss it.

Taste of excellence

First and Oak is located at 409 First St., Solvang. More info: 688-1703.

Arts and Lifestyle writer Rebecca Rose sometimes feels guilty for eating poor Peter Rabbit. Contact her at rrose@santamariasun.com.




Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company is set to release their seventh annual Anniversary Beer, this time a barrel-aged imperial porter the company said is reminiscent of being on a camping trip. With notes of vanilla, chocolate, and (oh wow) graham cracker, the beer is a whopping 11 percent ABV. They are throwing themselves an anniversary party on Nov. 25, when they will officially release the beer. Join the party at 45 Industrial Way, Buellton. More info on the anniversary party is avialble at figmtnbrew.com.

• Fans of Bob’s Well Bread pay attention. The bakery is now taking pre-orders for Thanksgiving. If you want breads, rolls, pies, and stuffing mix, visit bobswellbread.com to see what they offer and order yours. The bakery is located at 550 Bell St., Los Alamos.

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