Open only a week, and they have it dialed in. I walk in and the mood, atmosphere, knowledge of the menu, friendliness of the staff, quality of the food, everything fell into place just right. Plus, much of the ingredients are sourced locally from our farmers market or local businesses.
It helps that southen Spanish and Moroccan are two of my favorite cuisines to begin with. I didn’t ever go to fancy restaurants in my travels there, but I did experience the traditional dishes, the spices, and the Moorish architecture. And I felt this new restaurant embodied the spirit of the region albeit on the higher end.
The people working there already knew their stuff, down to cheese preferences and details of ingredients. Those who were clearly in training were under careful care of the experienced staff. I sat at the bar initially for a cocktail, but enjoyed the beverages and company of the bartenders that I stayed there for the rest of the night. The head bartender was Dudley, a modest but very sharp fellow who took very good care of me. And bonus: he announced that someone else in the restaurant had bought my cocktail. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Was it my perfume?
My dining companion and I didn’t hold back and ordered way more food then we needed, only because we wanted to try so much on the menu.
The cocktail menu is evolving, at the time I was there only four specialty cocktails were available and I tried them all. My favorite was the Palermo, similar to a Manhattan but with a piece of vanilla pod as a twist. Best of all, it’s served with real maraschino cherries. It’ll cost you $15, though, so be prepared. The other cocktails cost less. Again, extra props go to Dudley and Scott at the bar, for the conversation and information. I know I took up a disproportionate amount of their attention, and I’m grateful for their company.
Here are the four drinks.
Toarmina: Avion silver tequila, St. Germain, fresh grapefruit juice.
Foodwise, gah! Are you ready?
* 5 cheese platter, served with a little Pink Lady apple jam. There’s a 3 cheese option as well. 3/$15 or 5/$25. The cheeses were Garrotxa, Romao, Mahon Reserva, Pecorino Stagionato, and Queso de Valdeon. Served with Pink Lady apple jam and toast. The waiter first said and we all agreed: the favorite was the blue queso de valdeon. I also liked the cheese with the rind of rosemary, as the herb had infused into the cheese. I played a game – how much of the rind was I willing to eat into to get more of the musty rosemary flavor. Pretty far, it turns out.
* cured meat platter, including buffalo carpaccio. 3/$15. Loved the serranno ham with pickled onions and garlic aioli.
* Ricottta gnocchi. My dining companion’s favorite. Three dense pillows over creamed spinach and wine reduction, and topped with crisp baked cheese. Keep in mind this is quality over quantity. Three may seems like a small number, but they are a good portion for tapas.
* Saffon risotto. A cross between risotto and paella, with firm Spanish chorizo and mussels and plenty of saffron threads. It doesn’t look like a big portion, but it is very filling. This could have been a whole lunch for me.
* Albondigas. Four California lamb meatballs in a rich tomato sauce. Two were a little salty, two were just right. Very good tapa.
* Moroccan chicken breast as a main dish, with chickpeas, almonds, swiss chard, grapes, natural jus. Different to what I consider Moroccan chicken, but the spice combinations were good, loved the crisp grapes.
* Wild boar ribs, creamy polenta, roasted baby beets, smoked bacon, fig reduction. Yummy! A robust and rich dish, and a lot of food. Meat was super tender, deeply flavored, like braised meat. This was a big dish, worthy of its $25 price tag. I was so full on all the other food, I was only able to eat one rib before declaring my meal done and getting the plate whisked away to be boxed up.
There was a lot of food left over. Honestly, if you have a drink and a couple appetizers or tapas, there isn’t room for a main dish. And that’s enough because you still get a full dose of the lovely atmosphere, which took me back to Andalucia, or Chouen or Marrakesh. I went on a Tuesday, when the farmers market was just feet away from the protected patio, like our own little souk bustling outside.
Spotted dining there: old school Santa Barbarans, other local reputable chefs and restaurant owners, travelers. Some believe the Haj is more about the enlightenment obtained from the journey there, rather than reaching Mecca itself. Therefore, to take in a traveler and be a part of someone’s Haj is an honor, for you will be a part of their experience. I’d like to think that the people behind Cadiz believe in that, too.
I love a restaurant when I can “feel the soul of the chef” in my food. It doesn’t have to be a fancy place, it doesn’t have to be a hole in the wall, it comes down to the passion of the chef and the restaurant. It was good here!
But Cadiz made one mistake. They left the jar of Luxardo cherries next to me unattended. This is more their problem than mine, mind you.
So, the bill? About $200 and we got a helluva lot of stuff, more than is realistic for two people. We probably could have cut $100 off if we’d stuck to what we knew we could eat and drink. So much went home in doggy bags.
A co-worker recommended Range, for being affordable and Michelin starred. I’d forgotten about it until the topic of dinner came up and we were thinking dinner in the Mission area would be most suitable for us to rendezvous with James.
Apparently seats here have traditionally been highly sought after, James said he went once before and gave up on subsequent visits because the reservation list was always too long. But today we gave it a short with just a few hours notice and got an 8:45 pm seating for four.
Bonus: great parking karma! We got space just across the street. Becca insists her parking karma comes because she’s drives a banged up old car – as soon as she upgrades her karma will go away. Meanwhile, we still reap the benefits of her amazing luck of parking in the city.
Seating was efficient and prompt, and we were in a small wing with two other tables. And those two other tables were filled with hip arty types talking about hip arty things. It’s intimidating to take a photo of my food when the person whose elbow I was accidentally touching was a professional food photogarpher, and ditto for the others at his table. But I learned: spraying scotch guard on a glass, then misting with water, will give the appearance of a big refreshing perspiring glass. So take note, oh food photographers.
The other table spoke of dating Christians. I didn’t get the details. But I did get details of the cocktails! All their speciality cocktails are $9.50.
Becca: Napoleon Complex – fair vodka, torres 10 year brandy, satsuma, mandarin napoleon, vanilla, lemon.
My drink was very nice, and if it was a little weak in spirit as reviews I’d seen often complain about, it was just right for me. I picked it because of the Encanto Pisco, an artisan spirit distilled in San Francisco but in the style of authentic Peruvian pisco. Plus, bitters!
For food, we all tried different things. Becca had the parmesan custard with endive, cara cara oranges and caper vinaigrette. She loved it, describing the balance of custard with savory as pleasantly unexpected. It was a beautifully plated item and would have been one of the favorites at the table…except that everyone else loved their appetizers, too.
Damon had the wild nettle stuffed pasta with goat cheese, lemon and almonds. He noted that the nettles didn’t sting at all! I also got no photo of this, as he was the farthest away at the table and I was intimidated by the professional food photographers right next to me (not working, just judging, I feared).
James ordered the item most reviews rave about: steamed savory clams with fennel sausage, fresno chiles and garlic toast. He said it was delicious, and I believe it. The clams were lovely and delicately small, the bread was perfectly toasted. He looked like he was enjoying this playground of seafood and sausage in his bowl.
I went with the raw Massachusetts day boat scallops with shaved fennel, marinated beets, blood orange and crème fraîche. I wanted seafood, and I wanted beets. Damn, I love beets! And maybe I was still disappointed by the small portion of beets were in my lunch salad. This was a wonderful dish, very fresh tasting yet tangy, sweet, bitter, creamy, crunchy, just all round awesome.
By now I was thoroughly intimidated by the professional food photographer talk next to me, so the only photo of the main dishes I got was my own. And it’s not even a very good one! I had the coffee rubbed pork shoulder with creamy hominy and collard greens. James had the same. This dish is described as the signature item of Range, the main dish that should be a part of anyone’s bucket list. It was insanely tender, holding shape on the plate until touched with a fork when soft strands would pull away like a dark rich butter. The coffee flavor was strong, and the meat in general had that intense slow-cooked taste. I might almost say it tasted a little tired, from being so strong tasting. James agreed.
Damon had the green lentil and portobello stuffed pan di zucchero with butternut squash puree, onion rings and yogurt. He seemed pretty happy there were onion rings on his dish! From my point of view, his dish looked like a piece of raw flank steak, rolled around some filling. It turned out to be the pan di zucchero, which is a kind of chicory, looking a bit like radicchio. That was the red lettuce with white veins that looked like meat with heavy lines of connective tissue to me.
Becca picked the winner, being the person at the table who figured out the appetizers were the way to go. She had whiskey and brown sugar glazed pork spare ribs with a carrot slaw. It was the perfect portion for someone not starving, and the pork shredded off the bones in fine thick pieces, and Becca found even the pork marrow bones were soft, edible and delicious. This spawned a whole new conversation about how everyone at the table – minus the vegetarian – loved roasted marrow bones. Yes yes, it’s good stuff.
For dessert, Damon had an espresso coffee, Becca had the blue cheese plate with honeycomb, and James and I shared a bergamot and bittersweet chocolate soufflé with earl grey ice cream. The texture of the souffle was perfect, warm, fuffy, chewy on the edges, creamy at the bottom. The bergamot and bittersweet chocolate was perhaps a little too bitter for me, and I feel that’s entirely a personal preference rather than a criticism of the souffle. Pairing it with the ice cream was a good balance, but I would have liked a little more ice cream to cut the bitterness of the cake.
Foodwise, everyone loved their appetizers. Mains were a mixed bag. None were bad, of course, but didn’t seem as interesting or innovative as the appetizers. And being a main course, they were decent sized portions, which was overly filling. If given the opportunity again, everyone agreed it would be better to order everything on the appetizer menu and skip the mains. I’m down with that, I love variety.
Range – Mission neighborhood
This is my second time coming here for a birthday dinner, the last time was two years ago. On this occasion, we’d heard they’d recently acquired a whole pig, and thus had many courses of pork to offer.
But first, an appetizer of chicken liver pate, caramelized onions on toast. I believe it was $3. Those aren’t worms coiled up on the toast, it’s the onions. Duh. It was good, and was gobbled up quickly.
Also as an appetizer, we got the charcuterie plate, which is ideal for sharing. It comes with hot grilled and buttered ciabatta. The charcuterie plate offered five kinds of cured meats, I’m not sure I can recall all of them, but most involved pork. I believe we had summer sausage, pork rillettes (the grey cube in the middle), salami, pepperoni, pate, with yellow mustard and basil mustard. It cost about $15.
Our final small plate was grilled pork tongue on toast with sauce gribiche – that’s the egg salady looking stuff – and microgreens. Really enjoyable, but hard to share.
Finally, we shared a main dish of roast pork, with aged cheddar mac and cheese, and collard greens. Excellent! The pork was flavorful and tender.
The only bummer of the evening was timing. We both had to go off to do SBIFF things, and it took a while to receive the last course, so once it arrived, we needed to have the check brought promptly, and had to skip dessert. At least I got a birthday dinner.
This was supposed to be one of those working lunches, where we get together to get stuff done. However, the business partner I was supposed to be introduced to wasn’t there! So it became just regular lunch, and work got done back at the office.
I’d been to Buenos Aires once before in semi-recent times. A company dinner a year earlier. But never for lunch, so this group was keen to try it all out.
To start out, everyone enjoyed the bread basket and chimichurri sauce to dip it in.
Sean’s lunch was pastel de choclo, a dish of layers of fresh ground sirloin with olives and raisins and sweet corn with basil served in a casserole dish, $11. Gustavo said this was particularly good, he’d had it before. But today he went instead for parrillada de carne y verduras, a plate of mixed grill and vegetables, including skirt steak, short ribs, Argentine sausage, and grilled vegetables and pineapple, $16. Plus an order of sweetbreads, $4.
David and I got sandwich plates, each served with a choice of soup, salad, or fries, $10.
One was the lomito argentino, with sliced sirlion and french fries (left photo) and the other was puerkito chileno, or thin slices of pork slowly cooked with beer, served with lettuce, tomato, onion, saurkraut, mayo and mashed avocado. This had sweet potato chips on the side.
Overall, this is a gorgeous little spot, with a pretty courtyard and fountain. Santa Barbara has very few restaurants specializing in South American cuisine, so Cafe Buenos Aires is a gem.
Cafe Buenos Aires
The gang had just taken an exhilarating walk through the lower eastside to admire all the homes decorated with Christmas lights. This is my third year doing the annual walk with them and it’s always a fun and magical time. We load up our thermoses with hot spiced cider and trundle down the streets where some families have decorated their homes with masses of lights. It’s overwhelming.
The neighborhood is so popular with its holiday lights that the trolley service in Santa Barbara runs a very successful Christmas light circuit at night, and they are *sold out*. Half a dozen or more trolleys cruise through the neighborhoods, chock full of happy people, gawking and sometimes cheering at all the lights.
After the walk through the cold night air, we’re hungry. After a very brief conversation, really there’s nothing to debate, we agree on La Colmena, a favorite amongst this group. They are open until 9-9:30 pm and it’s only 8:30. We race over!
Jon and Matchoo are fans of the Alhambres plates. These are plates with a big mess o’ meat and goodies on them, and a pile of tortillas, and you assemble your tacos to your liking. You get four tortillas, but order some more because there’s enough filling to make about 5 tacos. These cost about $7.50 so if you gauge the normal price around $1.65 each, you’re saving by getting the plate and filling the tortillas yourself.
Jon got his own alhambres plate, while Matchoo, Say and I shared two plates between us, as we weren’t as hungry.
We picked the asada alhambres plate (upper left photo) and the lomito alhambres plate (upper right). They came with more than just meat.
The asada is spicy grilled beef with onions and assorted grilled peppers, some are a little spicy. Then topped with cheese.
The lomito alhambres is grilled pork with mushrooms and onions, topped with cheese. I like this one the best, as I’d never had the mushroom combination before and their juices flavored the pork and onions so nicely.
We got four tortillas per person, so 12 for the lot and we used them all. The fillings were gorgeous and delicious, very juicy and flavorful. Conversation was reduced to grunts of pleasure and requests to pass the tortillas or salsa or napkins. And everyone gobbled up the salsas, which were their usual awesomeness with varied and complex flavors. The hottest one, btw, is the creamy red/orange. It is HOT. I like the pico de gallo mixed with the marinated onions.
Alicia went with tacos, and now that I’ve tried the alhambres, I prefer the tacos as well. The alhambres is great if you love a larger quantity and really like one item. I like variety, so I can’t have as much of just one item. I’ll will stick with the tacos going forward.
Jon and Alicia come here often, they really love it. They’ve confirmed that the happy hour tacos are still just $1 each, but they are a little smaller in filling and have only one tortilla. So it’s not a straight up 65 cent discount for the same amount you’d get during regularly priced times. Still, it’s a bargain and they still come here often. As do I!
Oh hey, do you want to see some of the Christmas light photos? Sure you do.
Taqueria La Colmena
Saigon Noodle House can’t seem to cut a break in the online reviews. I’ve never had a problem with it, although I’m consistent in what I get – usually the dry vermicelli noodles with grilled pork and eggrolls.
And it’s a shorter drive to reach than going into Old Town for Vietnamese food there. Tom and I were in the area already for errands, so we came here for lunch.
Tom’s vegetarian requirements undoubtedly give him a different perspective on how good the food is, or the service. On this day, his spring rolls did not arrive until after he asked for them after receiving his main lunch, and the waiter asked about what he ordered to confirm it, like they’d forgotten. When they came, they had pork in them and he’s certain that’s never been in his spring rolls before. Not so cool for a vegetarian. He didn’t eat them after that discovery bite.
His main lunch was a vegetarian fried rice dish, which came with a bowl of soup. The soup was a simple broth, which he didn’t eat. The fried rice, he did eat.
Overall, I’d say the food is distinctly average. And when did “average” become bad? No, it’s average, like, on par. And they sure were busy – there was a queue within 10-15 minutes of us arriving.
Saigon Noodle House
I’ve gotten used to eating Japanese food elsewhere, I admit it.
We came to Itsuki because the first Japanese place we tried was fully booked with a 30+ minute wait, and we’re like “duh! We should go to Itsuki and have ramen!”
So I’m not saying Itsuki is bad. Deffo no. Their strong point is ramen, and I think they do the best in town. My dealio is that I rarely crave ramen these days. They also do a good, simple, cheat eats bento box. And I rarely crave that either.
But here we are, ordering a couple rolls and a bowl of ramen. The first roll is a tuna roll, using brown rice by request of the kitchen as they only had enough white sushi rice for one other roll. You know what, it didn’t taste much different, so maybe it’ll be a good thing to get more brown rice in the future. Using lemon to separate the pieces was interesting – it did impart a lemon flavor to the rice, and I found the taste unusual.
The second roll was …um, er, I think it’s a soft shell crab roll. But I can’t remember! It was big.
Finally, the main item, pork ramen. It came with a few pickles on the side, and extra chile powder to shake on. The bowl is so enormous this can feed two people or stuff one to the point of bursting.
Considering the weather was cold and dreary, a big bowl of noodles really hit the spot. However! As we were eating, the waitress reminded us they were closing soon, so please put in last orders. And we were all confused. Wasn’t it just barely 9 pm? It was. And that is evidence that my routines have been set by another restaurant because I’ve gotten so used to eating Japanese food up until 11:30 eat night. So spoiled.
I went to Mama Lu after attending an art exhibit opening near the area. Pulling in, the car park was filled with young Asian students, over a dozen people in the throes of bidding each other adieu after eating at Mama Lu’s. Inside, a woman working there confirmed – the place is popular with Chinese and Taiwanese exchange students.
Another thing I noticed in the car park were the trees and shrubs. They were all specimens fitting for an Asian garden, like hedges of bamboo, an orchid tree (Bauhinia) and a Japanese maple, starting to turn autumn colors. If I didn’t already recognize these types of plants, I’d have walked right by them, because they’re all cut and maintained like generic street plantings, i.e. box and ball shaped. There’s a great infrastructure of horticultural gems there, they just need some shaping under the guidance of someone with an eye for Asian gardening to bring them back to their optimal aesthetic. It also goes to show: this spot is perfect for serving up Asian specialties.
If any of you remember this spot when it was Hibachi, a large center portion of the restaurant is the “kitchen” area, but back in those days, the kitchen was in an open space. The center is still the kitchen, but walls probably closed it in a long time ago, giving the impression of a much smaller dining space with the tables lining the remaining outer ring of the building. You might never know your best friend is sitting at a table just around the corner from you.
The popular thing to do is the buffet, offering about 2-dozen options throughout the day for just $9. There seemed to be a natural separation in the restaurant, where buffet diners sat on the side of the restaurant to be closer to the buffet table, and people who ordered off the menu sat on the other side. We sat on the buffet side and were this close to ordering it, not because we were famished for unlimited quantities, but because we were thinking we wanted salt and pepper shrimp and it was in the buffet, whereas an individual portion of it was around $12. Ultimately, we decided not go the buffet route, nor did we order the salt and pepper shrimp!
Instead, we ordered items we weren’t familiar with: a Fish Hot Pot, Taiwanese style, and a dish of eggplant and ground pork. Plus tea and rice.
The tea comes first, where I let it steep a minute. My experience with Chinese dining, it is customary for whoever takes the teapot to pour everyone’s tea before their own. Even later in the meal, if your own cup is totally empty and everyone else’s are still mostly full, you pour a courtesy amount of tea in the other cups, or provide the opportunity for others to decline your offer, before you fill your own. It’s a sign of generosity and being gracious. While we are sipping our tea, the kitchen brought out a small plate of hot salted peanuts, and picking them up with chopsticks is excellent practice for the coming main dishes.
For the hot pot, there was a beef option, but we got the fish and this turned out to be a hot clay pot filled with a very hot and spicy fish stew, the kind of spicy hot that makes my tongue tingle, because the dish is brimming with Sichuan peppercorns. For those who find it too hot, have some rice with it. The portion was easily generous enough to be a complete meal for two people, but we also had the eggplant and pork dish coming.
The eggplant and pork dish was equally tasty, although far less spicy. In fact, not hot spicy at all, just good Asian flavor. The eggplant was in big juicy chunks, and the meat in the dish was generous as well. Would I get them again? Yes! But not before I go through more items of the menu.
The bill was about $25 for two people sharing. I took away all the leftovers, and assembled my own bento box for lunch the following the day, and the rest I delivered to my parents, who made a dinner of it the following the night. It was a lot of food.
I’m still a big fan of Petit Valentien, although I don’t stop in as much as I’d like to. But we came in tonight, intending to have more of a snack, but it turned into a larger meal. We sat at the bar.
The melon and prosciutto is simple and good. It includes a wedge of cantaloupe, a slice of cured ham, some slices of salami, a drizzle of balsamic reduction and a wedge of lemon to squeeze over it all. The lemon brings it all together.
Also at Petit Valentien that night was a business partner and coincidentally we’d be having lunch together the next day. Small world.
After a lovely wedding ceremony in Inkberrow, the crew drove on about 20 miles to Stratford, home of William Shakespeare, for the wedding reception.
After reception cocktails, which went quickly in the heatwave most of England was experiencing, there were two rounds of meals, and the first was a proper sit-down banquet. We were served the best wedding food I’ve had in my life. Well-coordinated, well-plated, served at the right temperature, and good quality, especially the vegetarian items (and for Britain, too!).
The vegetarians got to start the meal with a fruit salad made of melon and berries in wine. We meat eaters had smoked duck with a Thai eggroll and a salad of sprouted beans. The Brits and even a few Americans were confused by the sprouts, finding them “more Californian” than British, but they still ate them. It was good.
For the main course, we had a roast chicken with gravy, and the vegetarians had mixed greens in a cup of phyllo pastry. Both were accompanied with platters of roast potatoes and roast vegetables.
Dessert was a selection of items, all included on the plate. An apple tart with spun sugar, ice cream, and berries in a rich berry sauce. And somewhere is some wedding cake, as well! Finally, after coffees, some champagne to toast the wedded couple.
The second feast came later in the night, during the more casual party atmosphere. It was a whole roast pig with piles of gorgeous crackling!
Oh dear, this looks almost too human to eat. But we got over that quickly. The staff pulled the pork and served it in soft rolls with coleslaw. Here’s where things got tricky – they didn’t plate the crackling when they served up the sandwiches! You had to *know* it was in a large bowl under the roast pig and grab it yourself. Luckily, we have that kind of intuition, plus I asked for a portion of pork without the roll and got a nicely plated dinner instead.
The night went on with music, dance and we drank ourselves merry. I recall a conversation about peanut butter? Nevermind, just play the music. The Hotel guests had been pre-warned of disco music already, why not take full advantage of it.
The Shakespeare Hotel