Santa Barbara may have gotten quite a bit of press in the past year for becoming the new home of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but the destination on California’s Central Coast is making a new kind of headline right now: for its culinary offerings, which recently caught the attention of the Michelin Guide for 14 of its restaurants in and around the city.
Just an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is popular with people who want a quieter way of life on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline the state has to offer, and with visitors who are looking to experience a more laid-back version of California’s wine country. Santa Barbara County has hundreds of wineries, especially in Santa Ynez Valley, rightly made famous by Sideways for its excellent (but less widely known than Napa) wines.
That same laid-back attitude is reflected in the city’s food. The new star of Santa Barbara’s restaurant scene, Sushi Bar, was just awarded its first Michelin star — but the restaurant is doing things in a way that’s defying traditional expectations of what that kind of fine dining experience should be.
At Sushi Bar, each guest at the 10-person counter is served a two-hour dinner of 17 “bites,” which are individual pieces of nigiri prepared by a culinary team (and one mixologist) in front of your eyes. That omakase dining experience isn’t much different than at any other fine dining Japanese restaurant — but what is different about this one is that San Fernando Valley-born Head Chef Lennon Silvers-Lee has earned his first Michelin star at just 27.
On its surface, Sushi Bar is a very casual experience. When you walk in, you’re assigned a seat, and your spot at the bar has nothing but a napkin, a small plate, a wooden square for your beverage, and a pair of chopsticks. In front of you is an arrangement of 16 planks on the wall, with that day’s selection of bites: simply “albacore,” “uni,” “bone marrow” and the like. All the diners at the counter and the chefs will chat in a convivial way through the experience, so much so that you almost don’t notice when the next bite is quickly placed in front of you.
Those bites look and sound deceptively simple. Mostly, they’re just a simple piece of fish over rice, sometimes briefly torched and sometimes raw, with a bit of soy, citrus and spice. What says “scallop” on the board is a raw Hokkaido scallop with lemon, sea salt, soy sauce and a tiny drop of Japanese condiment yuzu kosho. “Kampachi” could be simply topped with wasabi root, soy and scallion.
The complexity and originality of the food come from what went into the preparation. That scallion is actually roasted scallion powder. A salt topping could be made with matcha, mushrooms and kelp. The salmon roe that tops the bluefin tartare is cured in-house. Even the soy sauce is made at the restaurant, and aged nine months before being served.
Sushi Bar is one of three Central Coast restaurants awarded the area’s first Michelin stars this fall. Another, Bell’s Restaurant in Los Alamos in Santa Ynez Valley, is owned by husband-and-wife team Daisy and Greg Ryan who left Per Se to open their simple, elegant, totally unpretentious French outpost (and its new counterpart Bar Le Cote in nearby Los Olivos). The third, Six Test Kitchen, is further north in Paso Robles.
But no other spot on the Central Coast has gotten the kind of recognition that Santa Barbara has. The city’s proximity to agricultural lands mean chefs aren’t just able to cook with the season, but with the week or even the day. Its closeness to wine country — the Santa Ynez Valley is just around 35 miles away, but there are noteworthy wines being made within the city too — means the wine doesn’t just complement the food, it’s an integral part of the culinary experience.
Loquita, a bib gourmand selection (chosen by Michelin for affordability and quality) is a restaurant in the city’s Funk Zone that serves Spanish food tailored to the Mediterranean climate of the city. Bib gourmand Corazon Cocina is simply a taco stand in the Santa Barbara Public Market, but calling its food “simple” is a disservice – options include three varieties of ceviche and tacos inspired by Chef Ramon Velasquez’s Guadalajaran heritage served on house made flour and corn tortillas. Mesa Verde is a bib gourmand selection for its plant-based menu filled with mushroom-umami burgers and squash blossom quesadillas.
At Caruso’s at the Rosewood Miramar Beach hotel, another of the restaurants recognized by Michelin this year, Italian-born Executive Chef Massimo Falsini isn’t importing his pasta from Italy, or even the flour to make it. He’s hand-grinding California-grown durum wheat into his own flour for fresh pasta, and serving it as part of a locally-infused prix-fixe dinner menu that changes nightly, but could include charred Pacific octopus e fagioli, spinach gnudi with quince, gnocchetti sardi abalone amatriciana, or “our waters” zuppa di pesce. It’s not just food served in Santa Barbara, it’s food made, grown, caught and prepared in this very moment. And that’s something to savor.