News & Press Releases > Kick-Back Cuisine in a Stylish City
DATE: 8/31/2005

Kick-Back Cuisine in a Stylish City

From the NY Times


NO one would dream of describing this resolutely easygoing seaside community, which likes to call itself the American Riviera, as one of the nation's (or even California's) cutting-edge restaurant towns.

It has nothing even half as glam as Thomas Keller's French Laundry, up the coast in the Napa Valley, or Wolfgang Puck's Spago, down the coast in Beverly Hills. There are plenty of celebrities underfoot, but they make their living in the movies and on television, not pounding pots and pans.

So don't come to Santa Barbara in search of foie gras or caviar. Don't come looking for swagged and spangled dining rooms. But you can have a dandy time eating and drinking here.

The fabulous fish and shellfish of the Pacific, the abundance of California's farms and ranches and the fine wines produced in the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills are all close at hand. They make their way to backyard cookouts, into beachfront picnics and onto the menus of the comfortable, California-casual restaurants Santa Barbara favors.

The real local specialty, however, is hangouts. Santa Barbara has them by the dozens, and everyone in town, children as well as adults, has a favorite.

Julia Child, who spent her final years in the lush, carefully manicured enclave of Montecito, at the eastern end of Santa Barbara, was no exception. Through her frequent patronage, she made a tiny taqueria called La Super-Rica locally famous, and deservedly so. When my wife, Betsey, and I came to call on her shortly before her death, she took us to Lucky's, a Montecito roadhouse whose sign actually says "Steaks/Chops/Seafood."

The food there was nothing extraordinary, but it was plenty good enough for the grande dame of American cuisine, as long as she could have one of her beloved turtle sundaes, with a great molten crown of hot fudge, caramel and nuts.

This time, we popped into several of our friends' haunts, and none disappointed us. Not the Shoreline Beach Café, where you eat pancakes made from batter laced with orange juice, or roast ahi tuna tacos, with the sand between your toes, or D'Angelo bakery, whose huevos rancheros are as good as its baguettes, or Freebirds, with gloriously gooey burritos, approximately the size and heft of artillery shells, which were described by my 10-year-old pal Jack Ross as "absolutely the best fast food in California."

Cheers for the Tupelo Junction Cafe, whose andouille and chicken hash, smoky bacon and crunchy cinnamon apple beignets bring a hint of Dixie to the Pacific. Run by a former competitive surfer, Amy Jeschke, it must lead the local clean-plate derby. And for Mi Fiesta, a tiny Mexican grocery in nearby Carpinteria, where Ruthie Hunter, an ebullient Californian of our acquaintance, used to buy candy as a schoolgirl. Now it makes tacos filled with amazingly moist and tender spiced chicken, spiked with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. "Oh my God," Ms. Hunter exclaimed, flinging her arms into the air as we ate at a plastic table on the sidewalk outside. "I love this so!"

We'll return whenever we get the chance to McConnell's, which sells butterfat-rich Island Coconut, Turkish Coffee and Russian Nesselrode ice creams and proudly displays a fan letter from a onetime Santa Barbara resident named Ronald Reagan. And to La Super-Rica, a humble turquoise-painted shack where people line up all day long, every day of the year. The tortillas there are filled with crisp-edged pork or tri-tip steak or melted cheese while still hot from the iron. The tamales are stuffed with corn, onions, chayote and pasilla peppers. This is Mex-Mex food, not Tex-Mex. La Super-Rica serves no chips and dips, and it is not a place where the same four ingredients are combined in 40 ways. Each item has its own texture and spices, and all taste of care and pride.

Poised prettily on a narrow, south-facing strip of land between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, with a mild climate all year long, Santa Barbara grew up around a mission church, rebuilt in 1820 after an earthquake. It still stands, with two stumpy, dome-topped bell towers and a classic-style facade divided by six pink Ionic pilasters.

This is really three towns in one: an old-style California beach resort of funky motels and train whistles and pockets of ramshackle housing; an affluent community of splendid and sometimes baronial houses; and a downtown of faux-Spanish stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, largely built after a devastating earthquake in 1925. Many of the latter are filled today with discreetly identified outlets of retail chains like Starbucks and Borders, in addition to local businesses. Downtown also boasts an excellent small art museum that recently featured a show of Greta Garbo's favorite photographs of herself, and a magnificent county courthouse (1929) lavishly decorated with stenciled beams, colorful tiles and murals.

Santa Barbara owes much of its character to laws restricting its growth and limiting the height of its buildings to four stories. More than 400 species of trees grow here, including palms from five continents, along with a multitude of flowers - jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea, magnolias, agapanthus and exotic, pendulous daturas.

Spending an hour or so at the exemplary Saturday morning farmers' market downtown, you find yourself surrounded by food-savvy folk. The aroma of blackish-red Camarosa strawberries intoxicated us, but Mary Wellington, an organic-farming advocate who showed us around, advised that we wait to buy until we spotted another variety called Chandler. "Much better flavor," she said, and she had a point. Eying piles of ripe peaches, another customer asked, "When will the O'Henrys come in?"

On one stand we found tiny purple artichokes of the kind the Romans fry whole. On another we found purslane, which the French mix into salads, as well as Mexican epazote and shahi - peppery Persian cress - all raised by a young farmer named B. D. Dautch. Another grower, Jacob Grant, offered edamame beans in the pod, a sugarloaf-shape green radicchio and a show-stopping Roman Candle tomato. But nothing quite matched Shu Takikawa's brunia and deer tongue lettuces, so flawless they could have come from a Flemish still-life. "You use them for centerpieces," the woman standing next to me said, not wholly in jest. "You don't eat them."

What you don't find at the farmers' market, you'll probably find at Lazy Acres, a locally owned, environmentally correct supermarket that stocks hundreds of cheeses, a dozen butters and pampered, good-looking produce, 70 percent of it from Santa Barbara County.

If it's the fruit of the sea you crave, instead of the fruit of local orchards, you might want to call on Don Disraeli at Kanaloa Seafood. In addition to many items imported from the Atlantic, and tuna from as far afield as Indonesia, Fiji and the Marshall Islands, he sells rock crab, spiny lobster, swordfish, Pacific halibut, wild salmon, white bass, sand dabs and petrale sole from the Left Coast. But no Santa Barbara spot prawns, which are featured on fish-house menus up and down California.

Why not? I asked. A Ph.D. in biology with an intense interest in sustainable fisheries, Mr. Disraeli explained that a change in fishing regulations several years ago had made the Santa Barbara spot prawn a misnomer. Spot prawns there are, he added, "but these days they come from someplace else, maybe Monterey or Alaska."

Among the city's leading restaurants is the bistro-esque Bouchon (no kin to Thomas Keller's Napa Valley spot), where Betsey and I ate a couple of well-made dishes based on farmers' market produce - a chowder incorporating potatoes, corn, mushrooms and lobster, and a blackberry and nectarine cobbler - and tasted several of Santa Barbara County's best wines, including an apricot-inflected 2004 Kunin viognier and a firm, wonderfully balanced 2003 Brewer-Clifton Cargasacchi pinot noir. Pity only 3,120 bottles of the latter were made.

Citronelle, the oceanfront sibling of Michel Richard's Citronelle in Washington; Downey's, a rather more formal place than most in Santa Barbara; and the Wine Cask, an outgrowth of the city's best wine shop, also have distinguished lists of Santa Barbara County wines that are seldom available elsewhere, even in California.

Another contender will no doubt be the Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch in the hills above the city, where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married in 1940, and John and Jacqueline Kennedy spent a week's honeymoon in 1953. The restaurant is now closed for a multimillion-dollar renovation ordered by its owner, Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby tycoon.

For the moment, the hot dining spots in these parts are L'Ombretta, a Venetian-style wine-bar-cum-restaurant, a block off the main drag, and the Hitching Post II, a steakhouse in Buellton, an hour north, which played a supporting role in "Sideways."

In Venice, people meet at taverns like Ca' d'Oro for an ombra or ombretta - a "shadow," or glass of wine - and sometimes a few cicchetti - small plates of food. Hence the name of Andrea Gros's cozy place here, which is decorated with the striped jerseys traditionally worn by gondoliers, including Mr. Gros's father. He offers 250 wines, 150 of them by the glass, mostly from northeast Italy. Try something from Jermann or Kante while you nibble boar prosciutto, anchovies marinated in vinegar, sweet-and-sour sardines, crab, superbly roasted peppers, eggplant and cipollini (the farmers' market again), tiramisù and a grandmotherly pear tart. All first-rate.

Up the road at the Hitching Post, in wine country, the warmly welcoming Frank Ostini grills prime Iowa or Nebraska beef over red oak logs aged for six months, including a bone-in beef chop almost as succulent as the côte de boeuf served in Paris bistros. His thrice-cooked French fries were picked by The Los Angeles Times as the best in Southern California. Since "Sideways," you can hardly get into the joint, and Mr. Ostini sells a lot more local pinot noir - his own excellent Hartley Ostini bottlings as well as others'. He indulged us with a rare tasting of his 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages.

Good wine is nothing new in Santa Barbara County. Jim Clendenen, based in the Santa Maria Valley, has been turning out premium pinot noir and other varieties for a couple of decades under the Au Bon Climat label. Robert N. Lindquist, with whom he shares production and storage facilities, has been making classy Qupé Rhone-style wine for much of the same time.

But attention has focused since 2001 on Santa Rita Hills, a new appellation at the western extremity of the Santa Ynez Valley. Because the valley runs east and west, fog and sea breezes waft in from the Pacific, providing a cool microclimate ideal for pinot noir and chardonnay. Similar conditions prevail in other West Coast zones that produce outstanding pinot, like the Willamette Valley in Oregon; the Russian River, Anderson Valley and Carneros areas north of San Francisco; and the Santa Maria Valley.

Richard Sanford, a traumatized Vietnam veteran looking, as he told me, "for a way to reconnect with reality," pioneered winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills, putting his Berkeley training in geography to work in choosing the sites for Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, planted in 1970, and Sanford Winery, founded in 1981. Many of today's leading Santa Barbara County producers, including Mr. Ostini and Mr. Clendenen, buy some of their grapes from Sanford & Benedict. So does Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, who has added further luster to the brand started by her late husband, Michael, the widely respected sommelier at Spago before his sudden death early last year at 43.

Other important small producers are Fiddlehead, Babcock, Sea Smoke and Brewer-Clifton. Many make their wines in rented space in a warehouse behind a big Home Depot outlet in Lompoc, known in the trade as "the ghetto." Styles vary, but all the Santa Rita pinot noirs share the family traits of dark color and earthy flavors.

Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead, who started in Santa Rita back in 1989, said, "Our cool little pocket enables us to make consistent and concentrated wines that age well and develop considerable finesse." Pinot fans are beginning to discover them, and plantings are increasing rapidly. The question, as Mr. Clendenen asked, is whether things are evolving too rapidly, and whether some of the newly cultivated land lies "in windswept areas that will prove to be a little too cold for wine grapes, even pinot noir grapes."