Brigitte Guehr is as much a restaurateur legend as anyone in these parts, after co-running well-remembered spots Oysters, Norbert’s, and Brigitte’s. It’s no surprise, really, given her claim: “My mother used to tell me that I was the easiest baby she could ever imagine-all I wanted to do was eat and sleep. Nothing has changed-these are still my favorite things to do, sleeping and having dinner with friends. I am blessed to have been able to make it my career.”
Her career has now led her to open Mirabelle Restaurant, part of the Mirabelle Inn in Solvang. And if you feel as if you’ve heard of a Guehr establishment in the Santa Ynez Valley already, you probably have, for the Mirabelle is a new spin in the same location as the Storybook Inn and Bacchus Restaurant. “When I bought the property almost three years ago, I wasn’t crazy about the name and planned then to change it to something a bit more sophisticated,” Guehr explained. “I loved the name Bacchus, but there was a real disconnect between the Storybook theme and Bacchus; in addition, people didn’t know what it was or how to say it.” But she is keeping the name for her new venture, Bacchus Culinary Adventures. Guehr explained, “I’ll be taking people to Europe for food and wine tours.”
In the meantime, people can take culinary tours right in Solvang at Mirabelle. According to Guehr, “Mirabelle is a small plum, popular in France and across the border in southwestern Germany, from the region where I grew up.” And the place is plum perfect, in its way. It’s a tiny room, no more than 10 tables, decorated in comfortable, fine French-influenced country style, with exposed beams and a bit of a brasserie feel thanks to vintage posters. Indeed, it might seem a country cousin to Brigitte’s (now Opal) on State Street, partially since it features the roots of that former establishment’s deep wine list with Duckhorn, Diamond Creek, Williams Selyem, and Mayacamas verticals. “I have a lot of wine still from the old wine cellar that originated at Norbert’s. In those days, I bought whatever allocation I could get,” Guehr recalled. “These days, the budget is a bit smaller, but there are many wonderful local wines I am adding to the list. It’s an addiction; once you start buying and get some rare allocations, you can’t stop!”
Given what’s on that list, it’s surprisingly affordable, but that’s also one of Guehr’s goals. She asserted, “In these difficult economic times, everyone is looking for a deal and we have to work together to be able to enjoy some small luxuries like going out to dinner, so we cut back where we can without letting quality and service suffer and make a little less, like everyone else.” Mirabelle’s best deal is a three-course tasting menu for a mere $28, or $40 if you order the paired wines. It’s rare to score fine dining at that low a price point. The experience will be augmented by the attentive, knowledgeable service. Her top waiter, Marty, in fact, was once the ma®tre d’ at El Encanto.
The menu, which changes with what’s in season (farewell, fond chanterelles!), might be described as wine country comfort food, always with an invigorating twist. Those perfectly done grilled lamb chops come with “polenta fritters” that might be called cornmeal French fries. That asparagus soup might seem to be just a tasty green stock, but then you ease in a bit of the delicately placed quenelle of crme fra®che and it suddenly has a richer dairy consistency and a lovely little backbone bite.
Turns out the executive consulting master chef is Norbert Schulz, Guehr’s ex-husband but still business partner. She explained that choice simply: “Norbert is the best. There is no one I know of who cooks and runs a kitchen better. That, coupled with his experience, is unbeatable, so yes, I still love working with Norbert. We have remained friends and co-parents to our son, who helps me run the inns [they also run the Meadowlark], and our daughter, who has developed a love of cooking and is working with her dad.”
Despite all the family involvement, the Mirabelle Restaurant is only open for dinner Thursday through Sunday. “Four nights is enough,” Guehr said. “I want it to be fun. More than that, and it might become drudgery.” Plus, she’s busy with other work, including taking Mirabelle Inn guests on personalized winery tours. “I love taking guests around wine tasting. I can create personal relationships with my guests-a couple of wineries and you easily become their BFF-and I get to network with winery staff and find out about the newest releases,” she explained. “I have always been ‘hands-on’; this is what I love to do. I like that term. Some people call me controlling. ‘Hands-on’ is so much nicer!”
Brigitte Guehr’s Mirabelle Restaurant is located at 409 First Street, Solvang. Call 688-1703 or see solvangstorybook.com.