Solvang Has It All
by Susan Montgomery
Solvang, California, often referred to as “California’s Little Denmark,” is one of the most celebrated Danish towns in America. In the past, we had briefly stopped at several of its unique shops while visiting other charming towns near the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country, such as Los Olivos, Santa Inez, Buellton and Ballard, but we had not spent much time in Solvang. However, thanks to a recent visit with other members of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association, we have happily discovered how much Solvang has to offer to visitors of almost any age or interest.
Do you like bakeries, particularly with an authentic Danish focus? There are five of them in Solvang. Do you like museums rich in local history and art? There are also five fascinating museums in Solvang. Do you like shopping? There are more than 120 shops of all varieties in Solvang, offering everything from antiques, jewelry, crafts, and stylish apparel to souvenirs, unique gifts and Danish candy. Do you love good restaurants? There are all kinds of options from casual to elegant, from Italian to Chinese, and, of course, Danish. What about lovely parks, entertaining theatrical productions, horseback riding, golf, art galleries, and a plethora of authentic Danish architecture? (Did I say windmills?) Solvang has it all.
My advice is to plan on spending at least two to three days (more if you can) in Solvang, including at least a day saved for touring the nearby wine country. There are many wonderful accommodations available. This time we stayed at the luxurious, boutique Hotel Corque, which is rustic and warmly decorated with spacious, comfortable rooms, and a friendly, welcoming staff. We enjoyed meeting the hotel’s personable manager, Jim Colvin, who told us about the hotel’s history and culture of impeccable service. We learned that Hotel Corque is owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians who are focused on maintaining high standards of excellence.
A tremendous asset to the hotel is its celebrated, four-star Root 246 restaurant, featuring fresh, farm-to-table cuisine and an extensive wine list. We enjoyed an innovative and delicious meal prepared by Executive Chef Seth Nelson with some outstanding wine pairings chosen and introduced by Morgen McLaughlin, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. We were first served an enticing charcuterie platter of house-cured meats, cheeses, pickles, and roasted garlic. (The decadent candied bacon went fast.) Our salad course was a creative combination of ingredients, including local greens, pears poached in red wine, and pickled grapes with a walnut vinaigrette.
But the entrée course was the most impressive: a Texas style wagyu beef brisket that was uniquely flavorful with its slightly spicy, salty crust. We learned that this delectable brisket had gone through a special process to make it so mouth-watering, including brining for eight days, then seasoning with the chef’s special Santa Maria rub, then curing for a day in the refrigerator, and finally smoking for two days with a mixture of mesquite and hickory wood. The brisket went well with all the Santa Barbara reds we tasted but particularly with the bold, fruity Rusack Estate 2012 Syrah. We also savored a pan-roasted chicken breast along with bacon confit thighs, all accented by a spinach herb jus. And for dessert we had a fun “rock & roll doughnut” topped with vanilla pudding and Pop Rocks. Root 246’s menu offers a variety of dishes to please any palate, but I like the fact that its menu encourages guests to try new and interesting flavor combinations.
We had several other outstanding meals in Solvang, including an authentic Danish breakfast at The Solvang Restaurant, where we were hosted by co-owners Jeff and Carol Paaske. We were especially excited to participate in a hands-on cooking demonstration as Tracy Farhad, from the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau, helped Jeff show us how to make traditional Danish aebleskiver, which are authentic Danish pancake balls. We watched as they poured their special batter into a cast iron aebleskiver pan where they turned these balls over at just the right moment so they were perfectly cooked. They were then served to us with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and raspberry jam. Aebleskiver is made fresh everyday and, along with a savory Danish pork sausage called medisterpoise, is one of the most popular items on The Solvang Restaurant’s extensive menu. Of course, you can’t go to Solvang without having at least one Danish meal.
We had two other memorable meals in Solvang. One was at Cecco Ristorante, where the chef and owner, David Cecchini, oversees an appealing menu of salads, pastas, and pizzas baked in a wood-burning pizza oven. Our group enjoyed a crispy mesclun greens salad, thin-crusted, flavorful pizzas, and a savory, braised, wild boar ragu on noodles. The luscious dessert was espresso pudding with marshmallow topping, creatively served in a mason jar. This casual, friendly restaurant made us feel right at home after a hard day of wine tasting.
I also want to mention that during our walking tour of Solvang we happened by Bacon & Brine, where we met Chef Pink (Crystal DeLongpre) who was recently a winner on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen with famous LA chef Jet Tila as a judge. The Chef and her partner, Courtney Rae, who keeps their menu focused on probiotics, spent some time talking with us about their approach to using local, organic, and fermented ingredients. Unfortunately, we did not have time to eat there, but this restaurant will definitely be a must stop during our next visit to Solvang. (How can you go wrong with a restaurant focusing on bacon?)
On our last day in Solvang, we also enjoyed an elegant farewell lunch on the lovely outdoor patio of the Alisal River Terrace, part of the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, a 10,500-acre working cattle ranch that offers guests a lush golf course, horseback riding, fishing, tennis, nature walks, spa services, and luxurious accommodations. The resort’s idyllic countryside setting takes visitors back to the romance of the Old West. Chef Pascal Gode offers guests an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu of both traditional and original dishes with a fresh, locally grown emphasis. We enjoyed a refreshing lunch, including a tangy tortilla soup, various salad and sandwich options, and a scrumptious dessert of pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust and caramel topping. I can understand why families, tourists and corporate groups keep coming back to this magical retreat. It is certainly on my bucket list of places to stay someday—especially after I learned that I can ride a horse to a big breakfast in the hills accompanied by singing cowboys.
Of course we could not leave the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country without doing some serious wine tasting. Stagecoach Co. Wine Tours took us in pleasant comfort to three outstanding wineries. We first visited Andrew Murray Vineyards, where we toured its stylish tasting and barrel rooms while sampling a variety of distinctive wines, such as a 2013 Viognier with ripe fruit flavors, nice acidity and minerality. We also enjoyed the 2012 Esperance, the winery’s signature Rhone blend, which was full-bodied, nicely balanced and oh so drinkable. Next we had lunch on the patio of Rusack Winery where gracious Georgia served us a some really outstanding wines, including two wonderful Pinot Noirs (famous in this wine region): a bright, spicy 2012 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and an elegant Santa Rita Hills Reserve Pinot Noir bursting with rich berry tastes.
And finally we had the opportunity for a unique private winery tasting, only available to guests of Stagecoach tours, at Bella Cavalli Farms & Winery. We met the winery’s enthusiastic owner, Jeff Lockwood, who shared some of his very special wines with us, including a crisp, fruity Bianco Rosa and a rich, spicy Chardonnay. We also sampled (and purchased) the winery’s homemade, delicioius peach salsa, olive oil and barbeque sauce.
There are more than 120 other wonderful wineries to visit in the Santa Ynez Wine Country, but I want to point out that there are also 19 tasting rooms in the town of Solvang. If wine tasting is your goal, you wouldn’t ever have to venture out of the village of Solvang where you could just wander around, tasting as you go. We were fortunate to visit the popular tasting room of Lucas & Lewellen where we met owners Louis Lucas and Royce Lewellen who described how they have successfully met the challenges of growing grapes in Santa Barbara County. We snacked on cheese and meats and tasted several outstanding wines, including a big-bodied 2008 Petit Verdot with bold stone fruit flavors and a newly released 2013 Viognier, which was deliciously creamy, citrusy and crisp.
Visting Solvang does not mean just eating and drinking. We were enthralled with two of the five museums in town. The staff at the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art welcomed us the first evening we were in Solvang and it was the perfect place to immerse ourselves in the rich history of the town we were about to tour. Through photos, exhibits, artifacts and a personalized tour, we learned about the Spanish missionaries who originally settled in the area and then eventually sold their land to the first Danish settlers who founded Solvang in 1911. We learned how these settlers established and built their village into the popular destination it is today. We were fortunate to be there the last night of the museum’s "Sideways" exhibit commemorating the tenth anniversary of the release of the much celebrated movie, which was filmed in and around Solvang. (Another interesting activity in the area is to take a self-guided tour of various sites made famous by "Sideways." Maps with movie sites are available.) I highly recommend making this museum one of your first stops when visiting Solvang. It will give you the background to deeply appreciate the cultural heritage of the city.
We also visited the Wildling Museum “where art and nature meet.” This modern and distinctive museum beautifully displays nature-themed artwork and exhibitions. We loved the current exhibit of the unique, graphic art of Charley Harper whose whimsical, clever depictions of animals delighted all of us.
On our final morning in Solvang, we first visited the Solvang Bakery where we enjoyed coffee and traditional Scandinavian pastries while learning how to make Gingerbread houses. Co-owners Susan Halme and her daugher, Melissa Halme Redell (as seen on national TV with Regis and Kathy), showed us how the bakery’s charming, personalized gingerbread houses are constructed. I can understand why families from all over the country order them each year. And, as a bonus, we all tried our hands at decorating our own gingerbread cookies. Some of us were more talented than others, but we all had fun. I think this is another must stop on a tour of Solvang. Gingerbread houses can be ordered at www.SolvangBakery.com or by calling 805-688-4939.
And finally, what would a Danish immersion experience be without chocolate, which we found in great abundance and in all varieties at Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolate where all chocolates and candies are handmade on site. Co-owner Kim Nielsen took us into his back, candy-making room and showed us how some chocolates are made and then we each had an opportunity to make our own chocolate candies. I must say my chocolates were a bit misshapened, but they were still delicious. Chocolates can be ordered directly from the shop’s website at www.ingeborgs.com or by calling 805-688-5612. (I think I know where my Christmas gifts are coming from this year.)
This overview of what’s going on in Solvang just touches the tip of the iceberg. But I hope you can see that whatever you are interested in doing or seeing, you will find it in this fascinating little town. You may not be able to fly overseas right now, but Solvang is only two hours up the coast from Los Angeles. I guarantee you will feel like you are in another world once you arrive. For more information or to request a Solvang’s Visitor’s Guide, go to www.solvangusa.com.
Photography by Todd Montgomery and Roger Paige.