Seeking Serious Eats in Solvang

It’s Not Just Æbleskivers Anymore in Our Little Denmark

The first courses at Ramen Kotori rival the soups. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Though wine country started luring sophisticated palates to the Santa Ynez Valley decades ago, the Danish-themed city of Solvang only recently evolved beyond its traditional æbleskivers, sausages, and rye bread. But California’s craft cuisine zeitgeist is finally settling in beneath the thatched roofs and faux windmills, with recent discoveries ranging from Israeli-inspired sourdough to Kyoto-conceived comfort food.  

There’s more simmering for 2020 as well. Though her APF Ramen at Hill Haven Provisions closed after a brief run, Golzar Barrera still caters events and hosts the occasional Persian pop-up brunch. Meanwhile, Peasants Feast will go from catering to brick-and-mortar when Sarah and Michael Cherney (Sides Hardware, Mesa Burger, Firestone Walker Taproom) take over the Greenhouse space. 

But here’s what you can already find in Solvang today:

Beneficial Breads @ The Good Seed Coffee Boutique

Leyla Williams holds her kubana.

Over my first sips of strong coffee in this airy, sparsely decorated café, I had no idea that The Good Seed Coffee Boutique is really the headquarters for a bread revolution. That all changed when Leyla Williams blew in with armloads of just-finished loaves and began detailing how she’d apprenticed for weeks with an Israeli baker to unlock the magic of true sourdough. 

“No one should eat bread that’s not sourdough,” explained Williams as she laid out the five loaves, which were wildly distinct in appearance and flavor. “There is a remarkable difference in taste and the effect on your body. I lost 24 pounds eating this bread three times a day.” 

Leyla and her husband, Brad Williams, who’ve known each other since they were teenagers in Los Angeles, got into coffee by buying The Loony Bean in Mammoth Lakes about a decade ago. Brad became certified as a Q grader — the coffee industry’s version of a master sommelier — and they source and roast beans with care. 

In line with her Jewish roots, Leyla always made challah on Fridays for Sabbath, but the sourdough project started soon after the couple opened The Good Seed in May 2018. Based on the orders that come in by Wednesday, she makes no more than 24 loaves of sourdough styles and 12 loaves of challah, which sell for $16-$18 each. Everything is from scratch and by her own hand, with organically sourced heritage grains milled by Grist & Toll in Pasadena.

On my visit, the challah was great — my Jewish wife later declared it the best she’d ever had — as were the hard red, hard white, and semi-rye with walnut versions. But I was stunned by the kubana, a pull-apart Yemeni bread that involves olive-branch-smoked, fenugreek-laced butter and nigella seeds. The flavor combination was unlike anything I’d ever tasted: intriguingly savory, exotically spicy, and mysteriously sweet. I can’t wait to get my hands on the loaves Leyla makes with miso and nori, or the ones layered in espresso and dark chocolate ganache, which fans turn into French toast. 

“It’s a living organism — there’s an element of devotion to it; there’s an element of nurturing,” said Leyla of breadmaking. “Bread has been treated like a villain because of what we’ve done to it, but it’s one of the most essential things. Even if you’re a prisoner, you expect bread and water.” 

Williams is spreading this gospel — and her sourdough starter — to people from across the country who’ve had epiphanies in her loaves and workshops. “I have people coming to me with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘I haven’t been able to eat bread in 20 years, so why can I eat your bread?’” she explained. “This is my nurturing contribution to my community.”

1607 Mission Dr.;

Fab Fromage @ Cailloux Cheese Shop

Janelle Norman, with her son, William

Though Janelle Norman pursued the cheesemaking life in Vermont years ago, her career eventually wound up on the rocks, complete with a PhD in geology from UCSB. But cheese kept calling, so Norman ditched academia to host pairing events, teach cheese classes, and prepare cheeseboards for tasting rooms such as Brave & Maiden and Alma Rosa from a commercial kitchen in Buellton. 

On October 1, she turned her service into a fromagerie, opening Cailloux Cheese Shop right across from Solvang’s main square in a shared space with Crawford Family Wines. While slicing thin wisps of a nutty Virginia cheese called Appalachian and a smooth Oregon one called Rogue River Bleu — recently named the best cheese in the world, the first time for an American in 50 years — she said that visitors can add a cheese flight to their wine tasting, rent a picnic basket to go, take afternoon classes, or just buy cut-to-order wedges and charcuterie for home. 

The shop was an instant hit. “The foot traffic from tourists is crazy,” explained Norman, with her newborn, William, dangling off of her chest. 

But the rocks aren’t totally gone from her life. Cailloux means “pebbles” in French, and it was also the name of their beloved dog, who died at 16 years old last fall. 

1661 Mission Dr.;

Japanese Comfort @ Ramen Kotori 

Ramen Kotori’s main dish

In a year of eating too much around the hemisphere, from opulent $500 dinners in Montecito to wood-fired tlayudas in Oaxaca, I found lunch at Ramen Kotori to be my most simultaneously delicious and educational meal of 2019. (Okay, well, n/naka might have the slight edge, but for almost 10 times the price.) I’m not even talking about the ramen — which was satisfyingly rich and appealingly exotic yet familiar — but the first round of dishes that I shared with hospitality legend Budi Kazali, who co-owns this small shop with his former employee Francisco Velazquez and his Kyoto-raised wife, Ikuko “Erica” Velazquez. 

There were pickled vegetables, fascinating for both the pickling style and the farm-fresh veggies selected; hand-rolled, scallion-topped pork and cabbage gyoza, like fluffy meat pillows of joy; fried chicken karaage with spicy mayo (might as well call it “karaage all-day”); and light-as-air vegetable tempura, crisply coated yet still snappy inside. I’d had all of those things before, but never so seemingly pure. That held true for the shiso-wrapped uni temaki, its briny-minty duality proving so memorable. 

Ramen Kotori’s co-owners, from left, Budi Kazali, Ikuko “Erica” Velazquez, and Francisco Velazquez

Hailing from a family of Santa Barbara hoteliers, Kazali staked his own claim by taking over the Ballard Inn nearly two decades ago and turning it into a beloved restaurant and hotel. That’s where Francisco worked for eight years before heading south to work in San Diego, where he met Erica. They then moved to Napa to work at La Toque and Morimoto before Francisco became chef de cuisine at Ramen Gaijin in Sonoma. 

“When we moved back to Solvang, I called Budi and made him ramen for dinner,” said Francisco, who then started hosting pop-up dinners at the Ballard Inn. On March 25, Ramen Kotori opened its doors, and they’ve been making fans ever since while loudly promoting regional farmers, whose brands are chalked onto the wall with every order of produce.

“If you want to make something great,” said Erica, “you just have to make every little thing as perfect as you can.” 

1618 Copenhagen Dr.;

Stylish Sips and Dips @ The Landsby 

Chef Beto Huizar

Modern Danish style is seamlessly integrated throughout The Landsby, a 51-room hotel that’s also home to the restaurant/bar called Mad & Vin, which recently expanded deeper into the open-walled lobby. It’s a buzzing spot for happy hour, powered by cocktails such as the Blood Orange Bourbon Sour, citrusy fresh and barrel-smoky at once. 

The wine country cuisine, which nods occasionally toward Denmark, is the domain of Chef Beto Huizar, a Jalisco native who came to California at age 16 and then worked in numerous Santa Ynez Valley kitchens. “What you see on my menu is what I’ve learned over the last 15, 20 years,” he explained. “I like a lot of classics, but with a twist.”

That includes the cheese fondue he served me, with gruyère, fontina, brandy, torn bread, and, for that Danish spice, caraway seed. Its warmth matched up with the bourbon cocktail. 

1576 Mission Dr.;


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