California stroll: Santa Barbara dining experience lets you shop with the chefs
It’s mid-afternoon as I descend the hill where the glamorous Belmond El Encanto (Spanish for “charmed”) hotel is perched in Santa Barbara, California. Downtown on State Street tents line the area, each selling produce, cheese and wares both familiar and unique to tempt locals and visitors alike. I’m here to meet Wine Cask Restaurant’s Executive Chef David Rosner for a Farmers Market Foodie Stroll during a period when there’s never been a better time to eat in Santa Barbara.
This celebrity-stuffed beach city about 95 miles north of Los Angeles is nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean along California’s Central Coast. Try to stay cool as you pass Hollywood elite – J-Lo, Tom Cruise, Oprah — on the square brimming with artisanal wine tasting rooms and endless restaurants.
Once you visit, you’ll understand why Santa Barbara is often referred to as the American Riviera. With its Spanish-style architecture and burst of bougainvillea and beaches, similarities to that other Riviera (in France) continue in the city’s cultivated food and wine scene, notable for an impressive adherence to sustainable agricultural practices.
Chef David and I amble past an abundance of stunning and curious local produce. I ask him to explain “cherimoya” (pineapple banana) and to ID the tiny pickles I spot in pint-size containers. This is “lime caviar,” he says. He takes one and demonstrates how the seeds become a pearly topping he uses on savory dishes at Wine Cask Restaurant. The Tuesday Farmers Market Foodie Stroll and Dinner ($75/pp) includes your own personal selection of a few ingredients Chef David will later incorporate into a custom, three-course dinner with pairings by Wine Cask’s wine director.
Later that evening, I take my seat at the communal high-top table inside Wine Cask Restaurant. I am served a plate decorated with one large prawn, fiddleheads (the fronds of a young fern), roasted hearts of palm, turnip puree and delicate zucchini blossoms I’d selected at the farmers market. The blossoms retained the complete shape of both flower and stem, yet crunched and melted in your mouth, finishing with a burst of extra-virgin olive oil. The lavender buds I spied earlier that day took the form of an infusion in a decadent creme brulee. In between was Chef David’s Bouillabaisse with Local Sea Bass.
The meal was regional, sustainable and delicious beyond words.
Bouillabaisse with Local Sea Bass
- 3 fennel bulbs
- 6 red peppers
- 4 red onions
- 4 carrots
- 6 ounces garlic
- 12 Roma tomatoes
- 2 ounces saffron
- ¼ bunch basil, stems removed
- 1 pound fish bones from the sea bass
- 1 pound baby zucchini
- 1 pound baby patty pan squash
- 1 pound baby eggplant
- 8 ounces piquillo peppers
- 6 ounces garlic, roasted
- 4 6-ounce fillets taken from 2.5-pound whole local sea bass
- Salt and pepper
For the sauce: Roughly chop the fennel, peppers, onions, carrots, garlic and tomatoes. In a heavy-bottomed stock pot on medium high heat, sweat the vegetables and the saffron and basil until tender with the pot uncovered.
Add the bones and enough water to cover them. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer for 3 hours. Remove bones and blend in a food processor until smooth. Strain through a chinois or cheesecloth-lined sieve.
In a heavy-bottomed saute pan, separately saute the zucchini, squash, eggplant and piquillo peppers, then cool them quickly. Reheat before serving with the roasted garlic.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Season fillets with salt and pepper. In a heavy-bottomed saute pan, brown all sides of the fish in a small amount of oil. Bake for approximately 6 minutes.
Plate the sauce in 4 bowls, arrange the vegetables and fish, and serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy Executive Chef David Rosner