Restaurant Rescue: Chef Pink Brings Solvang’s Root 246 Back to Life

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Chef Crystal DeLongpré makes doesn’t mince words when she describes what lured her into the kitchen of Solvang’s well-known restaurant, Root 246.
 
“There’s been a quality lapse and some dissidence in the ranks,” says the foodie better known as Chef Pink. “They’d been chef-less for years, and that hurt them, and it hurt their reputation.”
 
Chef Pink in action
Indeed, the Solvang restaurant that enjoyed its heyday in 2009 when celeb chef Bradley Ogden opened its doors with an inspired wine country menu was a different spot to eat when Chef Pink took over in late 2017. Chef Ogden had left in 2012 and, in the years that followed, an apparent lack of focus and investment led the Chumash-owned eatery inside the Hotel Corque to fall from grace.
 
When new management sought to revamp Root 246’s reputation, the timing seemed right for Chef Pink, too. The 20-year restaurant industry veteran’s resumé already included kitchen stints from Hollywood to New York to Paris. In Santa Barbara, she’d cooked at Epiphany and Square One. And TV appearances on SpikeTV and the Food Network had already allowed her to sport the title, celebrity chef. When a fallout with her landlord led her to shutter Bacon & Brine – a hugely successful food spot in Solvang that she ran with wife Courtney for five years – Chef Pink was on the hunt for something new.
 
“I knew [Root 246] was a beautiful space, and the kitchen is amazing,” she says. But before she could pay any attention to the menu, “the staff was the main thing.
 
“Finding talent in this [Santa Ynez] Valley is an incredibly challenging thing – we’re not flushed with great cooks,” she says. “We don’t have a reputation yet for being great, though we will in a few years. It will take work and training.”
 
And for her entire first year at Root 246, that’s exactly what she did. She found a few people “with a hunger for great food” and put them from through rigorous training. Lots of one-on-one -- even a six-week crash course on all things culinary with visiting chefs from San Francisco. And a year later, in late 2018, when Chef Pink finally felt she had “a team that wanted to be at work every day and that was inspired and happy,” official word of her new tenure at Root 246 began to spread.
 
photo credit: Chef Pink
Cost is a clear focus at the new Root 246, mainly to expand the client base, locals in particular. “Accessibility and affordability matter here,” says Chef Pink of the restaurant that seats 171. “When I used to do fine dining, I’d look out over the dining room and could see that only a certain amount of people would come in and eat the food – it was too socially unbalanced. I’m creating a place where more people can have access to the same quality food and larger portions.”
 
Appetizers range from $4 to $14 and entrees cost between $14 and $28; the outlier is an impressive 24-oz. Dry-Aged Bone-In Rib Eye that comes with potatoes fried in beef fat and sells for $68.
 
The Root 246 menu changes seasonally and is totally ingredient-driven. All meats are sustainable and humanely raised. All the chicken is free-range. Seafood is all local except for the octopus, which comes from a small Spanish source. And the produce is 99% local. “It’s almost all from the Santa Ynez Valley,” says the chef. “I want to support local farmers and their vision.”
 
photo credit: Chef Pink
The Spring 2019 menu launched just this month with 14 new items, including the Ajo Blanco Soup, made with garlic, almond, spicy radish, grapes and chervil, and the Aguachiles, featuring local halibut, tangerines, cucumber, pickled pequin chilis, grapes and limes.
 
Among Chef Pink’s personal favorite starters on her regular menu is the Oak-Grilled Heirloom Carrots ($11). Sourced from Sunrise Organic Farm in Buellton, the carrots are grilled over an open fire  -- “It helps elevate the sweetness and floral aspects of the carrots,” she says – and served on the plate with a homemade turmeric yogurt, pistachios and fresh dill. The Organic Chicken Liver Paté ($12) comes with crispy shallots, a house-made IPA vinegar and grilled bread and the Grilled Wild Shrimp ($14) features a peanut mole and cilantro. The popular Grampa’s House Focaccia ($4.50) is presented with organic California butter and sea salt.

 
On the entrees list, Chef Pink is a fan of the Impossible Burger ($14), the vegan alternative that’s remarkably close to the real thing; it comes on a potato roll with fries. “When I was in culinary school, I could only dream of vegan fine dining – it wasn’t done back then,” she says. “This type of product now gives me the freedom to showcase food that’s plant-based and produce that’s local.”
 
For the real thing: the 8-ounce wagyu Creekstone Ranch Burger ($18) comes with sharp cheddar and a bacon aioli; the American Lamb Burger ($18) features Bellwether Farms ricotta cheese and a spicy tomato jam; and the Neiman Ranch Pork Osso Bucco ($26) is accompanied by braised bay turnips, preserved lemon and a prune gremolata. Like all meats, the 12-ounce USDA Prime NY Steak ($28) is grilled over an oak wood fire. Seafood finds include the Braised Octopus Stew ($22), presented in broth with cannellini beans and house bacon, and the Santa Barbara Halibut ($26), butter-basted and doled out with fresh herbs, roasted potatoes, olives and lemon in a smoked tomato broth. A vegetarian favorite is the Roasted Kabocha Squash ($18), served with red wheat, spicy pepitas and an almond-coconut reduction.
 
Sides, all priced at $7, include the Slab o’ Cornbread, Sautéed Kale & Garlic and Baby Japanese Turnips.
 
“Everything I put on the menu is something I’d want to eat, myself, so the focus is on incredible flavor,” says Chef Pink. But I also want to make sure everyone gets the variety they need. Not everyone comes in for the same experience, and our demographic in Solvang is different than it was just five years ago. As restaurateurs, we need to remember that. We are in the hospitality business, after all.”
 
Chef Pink recently launched a Chef’s Table inside the expansive Root 246 kitchen; seating for up to 10 by reservation for a five-course, hand-curated meal is priced at $65.
 
The Ultra Lounge, right next door to the Root 246 dining room, has quickly become a popular destination for fans of cocktails and all things casual. Chef Pink recently introduced a 19-item bar menu to accompany the top-shelf whiskeys, craft beers and signature cocktails, as well as a wine list that’s heavy on the Central Coast, including the Chumash tribe’s proprietary label, Kita. It serves food until midnight and adult drinks until 1:30am on Friday and Saturday nights.
 
Root 246, 400 Alisal Rd., Solvang. 805-686-8681. Dinner Tue.-Sun. from 5pm. Lounge opens at 4pm. Sunday brunch 10am-2pm. root-246.com.

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