How does this sound: Danish treats, sustainable eats and world-class wine straight from the vine? I thought it sounded pretty darn great, so I pointed my bike to Solvang, California to do it all – and then some!
Nestled on California’s Central Coast is the small town of Solvang and if you were to fall asleep and wake up in the heart of town, you’d swear you were in Denmark – really, it’s that authentic. Solvang was founded by Dutch settlers in 1911 who came to the area looking for land to farm and not only did they leave their mark architecturally, but they also heavily influenced the local cuisine – in the most delicious ways.
In keeping with its European roots, Solvang is also incredibly bike friendly and it was easy to find my way on bike paths in town, as well as roadways in the countryside. The residents of Solvang are also extremely bike friendly, paired with the ease of rolling hills, you’re sure to always get in a good ride.
On this journey, my first stop was, of course, The Solvang Restaurant located in the heart of downtown. The family of owner, Jeff Paaske, was one of the first to settle here more than 66 years ago and Jeff’s father was instrumental in the architectural vision for the town. Today, Jeff carries on family traditions through food, where every menu item is authentic including the mustard, his mother’s own recipe.
But what fascinated me most was the sweet dish, aebleskiver. I know, say that three times fast, right? Aebleskiver was described to me as somewhere between a pancake and a donut topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. Lemme tell ya, this blew both of those comparisons way out of the water. It was other-worldly good and when I go back, it’s one of the first items I’ll order. Jeff also treated me to heaping helpings of sausage, sauerkraut and Danish pumpernickel bread baked fresh at local bakeries.
The best word I can use to describe it is: phenomenal! At the end of the day, Jeff takes trimmings from salads, eggshells and scraps to his sister’s farm where she uses them for compost and to feed her chickens so nothing goes to waste. Full disclosure, I cleaned my plate, so nothing went to waste on me either…
My next stop was the nearby Succulent Café, whose name is derived from the gardens of indigenous succulent plants on site. Owner Sylvia Brent sat down with me and treated me to two distinct dishes, both with homemade biscuits as the central ingredient. The first was a pulled pork biscuit with bacon gravy – and it was delicious – but what I really want to talk about is the next item: the meatloaf biscuit.
Reason being, as a kid, my mom used to make meatloaf regularly and, I say this with all the love and nostalgia a Jersey boy can muster, but her meatloaf was not my favorite. THIS meatloaf though – you’ve gotta try! It was a nice balance of sweet and savory – sweet from the house-made tomato jam – savory from the bacon on top – but what surprised me most was how light it was! And thankfully, Sylvia let me in on a little secret ingredient: oatmeal! Who knew! And it’s definitely a trick I’ll be trying at home.
From Succulent Café I hopped on my trusty bike and rode through miles of rolling countryside. Surrounded by farms and vineyards, it was easy to just let my mind wander with the meandering roads and before I knew it, the miles slipped away. Not surprisingly, all that riding worked up an appetite, so I headed to my next stop: Sear Steakhouse. Have you ever met somebody and just got that feeling that this is a genuinely good, down to earth, nice person? Owner and chef, Nathan Peitso checks all those boxes with ease.
Even when I tried to get him to brag a little on his culinary talents, he humbly replied, “We’re just a simple steakhouse trying to do the best we can.” You’ve gotta love that. And I especially loved Nathan’s intentional focus on sustainability. He grew up in a farming family and his appreciation for great ingredients has stayed with him, often using herbs from his own backyard garden, and working selectively with small scale organic farms – some even biodynamic. He also frequents the local farmer’s market and buys what’s fresh to keep the menu different and source what’s readily available. One bite of Chef Nathan’s steak and this much is abundantly clear – he’s in this for the love of cooking. It’s one of the top 5 best steaks I’ve ever had. Cue the fork drop.
Before I get to my last stop in Solvang, I wanted to recognize a little coffee shop in downtown that I visited every morning of our stay: Good Seed Coffee Boutique. They roast their own coffee, bake their own breads – in fact, I had their fresh-baked walnut and cranberry rye sourdough, topped with fresh butter and jam every morning - and when I go back, I’ll do the same – it’s that good!
In case you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Solvang and my last stop pushed my love of this special place over the top: Sunstone Winery. Remember when I said if you woke up in Solvang, you’d swear you were in Denmark? Well, if you woke up at Sunstone Winery, you’d swear you were at an authentic French Chateau – and for good reason.
As Chef Brittany Rice shared with me, her parents traveled extensively, and her dad was a builder who had a good eye for collecting items. So when the time came to build Sunstone on its expansive 25-acres, her parents shipped 42 containers of materials – doors, shutters, parts of hardware – all salvaged from real French Chateaus, to the property in Sunstone. Their commitment to authenticity is apparent in every detail and the finished product is absolutely breathtaking.
Equally as impressive was the wine and food pairing Chef Brittany, of Cordon Bleu training, prepared for us. The spread was incredibly impressive, so you’ll have to watch the episode for every mouth-watering detail, but I will say this – as a two-time cancer survivor, raised by parents who believed in organic farming – the purity of her ingredients was on full display and, as you’ll see, I summed up that divine experience by saying, “that is ridiculous!”
Now, the only ridiculous question that remains is, why haven’t you been to Solvang? Grab your bike, pack a bag and bring your appetite because it’s gonna’ be great!