If you can’t bring the people to you, you have to go to the people. At least that’s the way the Rosenson family saw it. Since 2005, they have owned Coquelicot Estate Vineyard just outside of Solvang. But knowing, as Jonathan Rosenson understated it, that “land use in the valley is pretty strict,” they opted to buy the Mirabelle Inn in Solvang as a hospitality center of sorts for their winery rather than build something on the estate itself.
Key to that hospitality is their new restaurant, First & Oak. Rosenson tells a story of a recent trip to Tokyo that crystalized what First & Oak hopes to accomplish. “I was eating at this high-end steak house with wagyu and Kobe beef, and on the five-page wine list alongside the usual Bordeauxs and Barolos are a bunch of Santa Barbara County wines,” he explained. “It’s clear we’ve made it; we’re international now. We’re a world contender in wine, and we need world-class food to match that.”
To that end, the Rosensons hired Chef Steven Snook, a fixture in Michelin-rated restaurants and protégé of Gordon Ramsay, who has also worked at Kenwood Inn in Napa. Snook composes plates with the eye of a painter, but the man can cook, too, pulling off slightly odd combinations such as a lobster dish with crunchy granola or French-style duck breast sous vide with Asian red miso sauce. “The dishes are layered with flavors, textures, complexity,” said Rosenson. “A lot of thought and care goes into each dish.”
Rosenson calls the menu “hyper-seasonal” and extremely regional in sourcing. “We grow some of the world’s best produce in a 75-mile radius of Solvang,” he explained. “We’re in the process of putting on our menu how far everything we source is.”
That menu, built around the headings To Begin, From the Garden, From the Ocean, From the Farm, and To Finish, features not so much shared plates — although no doubt everyone at a table will want a delicious bite of everything — as small plates. This concept also came from the Rosensons’ world travels, when Jonathan and his father, Bernard, eschewed big mains and ordered meals of three to four appetizers instead. “They seemed more intriguing than the entrées,” said Jonathan. So at First & Oak, he explained, “You can eat our lobster and our short ribs the same night and not feel you’re stuffed to the brim. It makes the experience fun.”
Rosenson stresses that 99 percent of what First & Oak does is made from scratch, in house, as they hope to “show elevated cuisine, elevated cooking, and show the locals what we’re excited about: good food and good company.” Rosenson aims high but with a bit more laid-back, Santa Ynez Valley twist. “We want to be like the French Laundry, but not a formal, massive, corporate animal in a conglomerate world like Napa,” he said. “We’re in a town that needs to raise the bar, and we’re always continuing to strive to do our best.”
First & Oak is located in the Mirabelle Inn at 409 1st Street in Solvang. Call (805) 688-1703 or see firstandoak.com.