The tricky part about food with a view is once the sun sets, you’re left gazing at your date or your plate. That is, you can be perched Pacific-side, hung over the Grand Canyon, or tethered to a hot air balloon, but in the dark, all the scenery in the world doesn’t matter. That issue gets even more complicated if you’ve built up a mighty hunger during the day, playing golf, riding horses, or keeping an eye on your own herd of kids as they frolic in a petting barn.
All this means executive chef Pascal Gode has his work cut out for him, even if he jokes about the ease of his commute in Solvang. Gode works at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, and must please those hungry as a hunter, or golfer, or tennis player, or croquet-er, even. And while his main dining room at the River Grill is surrounded by 10,000 acres of sylvan green and rolling hills, at night it might as well be in an ermine-lined box, save for the spray of stars.
That River Grill just got a facelift, including a new bar. Stormie Strickland, the Alisal’s convivial sales manager, said, “We gave it a new identity. It was never intended to be a place for locals or visitors, just ranch guests. But now we hope it will attract not only tourists but locals also.”
The physical room makeover came off well. Everything looks spiffy and vibrant without necessarily looking too new-lots of bright wood can do that to a large public room that, in this case, seems homier than one might expect, given its volume. The red-patterned rug almost appears more Santa Fe than Santa Barbara, but gives the room some verve. And, of course, a huge stone fireplace couldn’t be more welcoming-the hearth away from home.
That’s the dance Chef Gode has to perform, too: how to keep things familiar yet try to stretch a bit. “When I started [in 1994], I wasn’t going to change the cooking,” he said, “People were coming in wanting beef and beef and beef. I have tried to diversify, adding the other accents we’ve grown accustomed to in California-flavors from Asia and Proven§al. I’ve tried to upgrade the cooking, put a little more modern into it.”
At a recent media dinner, Gode exhibited exactly what he described in his quote: The main course was a grilled prime Black Angus sirloin medallion, but the tarragon-shallot butter proved Gode started cooking in France. It wasn’t any gloppy steak sauce, that’s for sure. The rest of the menu also pushed gently at the borders of ranch food-a coconut-crusted shrimp looked to the Far East, if via Trader Vic, but sat in sharp relief upon a red curry aioli that was about flavor more than spice and a pitch-perfect, crisp mango cole slaw that defined vegetable flavor and crunch, partially thanks to some well-chosen jicama.
The evening also featured lots of wines (Gainey Chardonnay, Beckmen Sauvignon Blanc, a Seghesio Zinfandel as a hearty pairing for dessert), mostly local, especially if one stretches local to include Paso Robles and Tobin James. “I get my kicks with big wine dinners,” Gode admitted, telling the tale of working with Bruno d’Alfonso of Badge and DiBruno, and Kris Curran of Sea Smoke, two of the region’s best winemakers, the night before our conversation: “We sit down, we taste wine, I listen to them discuss their wine. : It takes two or three hours, but you get a good menu going. There’s no label on what is wine country cuisine, you have so many things being part of wine.”
Of course, Gode was born into wine country, having grown up in Epinal in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France. His father operated a p•tisserie and boulangerie, and Gode started in the business at 11 and hasn’t looked back. Or maybe he has, for the dessert sampler served at the media dinner set the night off spectacularly, particularly a peanut butter bombe that still can send a shockwave of deliciousness around my mouth when I remember it.
Getting from Alsace to the Alisal was “a long trip,” Gode laughed. He left France at age 22 and from there worked in the Bahamas, Miami, Dallas, and Beverly Hills-he had a run at Four Seasons properties that prepared him well. For six years he was co-owner and executive chef at the diRoNA Award-winning La Vie en Rose in Orange County, but then the Ranch opportunity opened up. It was impossible for him to ignore the chance to be in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country and out of the middle of the O.C. traffic and rat race.
Indeed, the Alisal isn’t just scenic, it’s historic, from its Mexican land grant roots as part of Rancho Nojoqui in the 19th century to its opening as a dude ranch in addition to a working ranch in 1946, with typically California-esque moments like a Clark Gable wedding along the way.
Whether the River Grill will become as favored by the locals as by those eager to play two 72-par champion golf courses, only time will tell. But time has tended to be very kind to the Alisal.
Alisal River Grill is located at 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang. Call 688-7784 or visit alisal.com.