Depending on whom you talk to, Chef Patrick Rand is either a jackass, a culinary genius, a loyal friend, an eccentric : in other words, he’s an artist. Though there are many and varied perceptions of Patrick Rand as a Los Olivos personality, there are fewer diverging assessments of his culinary talents. Ask just about anybody in Los Olivos what they think of the food at Patrick’s Side Street Cafe (2375 Alamo Pintado Rd.) and they’ll tell you it’s one of the best, most inventive restaurants in all of Santa Barbara.
Several weeks ago, when I stopped by Patrick’s, as locals like to call it, Rand waved at me from the kitchen and said, “Come here! You have to come try this!” He was inviting diners to come to his kitchen and try a spoonful of his freshly made chocolate mint ice cream. “I picked this mint fresh this morning while I was drinking my coffee.” The resulting ice cream seriously rivaled any commercial effort by Ben & Jerry’s. This ice cream was the real thing-the very essence of backyard mint growing on a cool summer morning, infused with pure chocolate. It was heaven.
I sat down to order my lunch, and, not long after, Rand came by to visit our table. This is something Rand does with every table, every night at dinner and most days at lunch. Like the greatest chefs of Europe, he works the kitchen and the floor, making sure that everyone has enjoyed his or her meal. He offers up wine recommendations, waxes philosophical about music and art, and shares good stories, all while moving effortlessly throughout the dining room.
Although that all sounds great on paper, some folks seem taken aback by Rand’s frankness and disarming demeanor. While he hopes all his diners enjoy his culinary creations, he’s not about to curry favor with anyone. “I was the executive chef at a country club and when you work there, you’ve got to kiss a lot of ass,” Rand said. “That’s what’s expected. That’s what’s proper. That’s what people pay for. No problem with that. But, when you come to a point in your tenure in what you do, and you decide to open your own restaurant, you decide how you want to run it. I want everyone to feel like they’re in my home.”
To that end, Rand does receive guests graciously and warmly, but if they come in with what Rand has pinned “L.A. attitude,” well, in his words, “it ain’t gonna fly. I’m not about kissing butt. If you like me, I’m very appreciative. Thank you. But if you don’t, that’s okay, too. This is my home and I want people to enjoy being in my home, but if they don’t, they don’t have to come back.” And it’s evident, surveying his clientele on the various days I visited, that he is indeed gracious with those guests who treat him kindly and fairly. If you’re polite to Patrick, he’s polite back. If you look through him, though, and treat him like a server or an unequal, be prepared to be rebuffed.
What Rand is able to deliver to receptive guests, however, is indeed one of the best culinary experiences on the South Coast. During my most recent visit, on an unseasonably warm evening, I started my dinner with the chilled avocado soup. The soup itself was a veritable distillation of what an avocado is supposed to taste like: slightly nutty, creamy, fresh. The texture of the soup was flawless, without the slightest lump interfering with the sensory experience. I moved on to my entree of prime rib with skin-on mashed potatoes. The prime rib was prepared perfectly-juicy and tender, with a thin layer of fat cooked to a perfectly light crisp. The mashed potatoes were served piping hot, which is a revelation. Too many restaurants these days serve mashed potatoes slightly warmer than room temperature.
It was a pleasure enjoying my entree in a leisurely fashion, as the music in Rand’s restaurant is almost as carefully thought out as the menus. Mostly, it’s old American standards-think Sinatra and Dean Martin. But, on other days, it’s good old southern rock or jazz classics. The music is never too loud or trendy, is always commercial free, and seems to suit the ambiance just perfectly.
“When I grew up, when you went into a house, all the women were in the kitchen,” Rand said. “For me, that’s where the love was. They cooked with love. They put love into their food. That’s what I want to do. I want to cook with love for my customers. They’re some of the nicest people in the world. They’ve been so good to me. So I put a lot of love into what I do. I just want people to be happy. And my promise to them is this: no mediocrity!” Rand issued this final declarative with passion and verve. He is constantly searching for the freshest ingredients, the finest vendors, and, with those ingredients, he is always reaching for the perfect flavor profile in any dish. “Look around,” he continued. “We have great wines in this valley. I want to make food that these great winemakers can be proud to serve with their wines. I’m so lucky to have these wines to work with.”