Over the last several months, the Chapala Street restaurant once known as Sevilla has been shrouded in a cocoon of change - the owners rethought the menu, threw out the old name, and conducted some minor construction. But it emerged in May as Scotch Bonnet, the flavorful new butterfly of the Santa Barbara restaurant scene.
Managing partner Amy Scott was brought in by owners Steve Karan and Marc Jones in December to help bring the spice back to Sevilla. (Scott’s sister Katie was also instrumental in revamping the menu, though she is no longer on board.) The Scott sisters staked their Santa Barbara claim with Southern-inspired food at Tupelo Junction and then applied their experience to Sevilla.
Describing their initial years in the restaurant business, Amy Scott explained, “Wherever we went, it was always food first.” Even if they were situated in a shack on the corner, the focus was always the food. Amy remembers arriving at Sevilla when it was an exclusive bar of sorts that happened to also serve food in addition to drinks. “We’re using the same formula,” said Scott, explaining how she transformed Sevilla into Scotch Bonnet with the same technique used on Tupelo Junction. “Now it’s food with drinks, rather than drinks with food.”
After some four months of serving Scott-style under the name Sevilla, the Scotts realized that, in an attempt to spice up the menu and change the restaurant’s image, they had been turning to Caribbean flavors rather than the Spanish indicated by the restaurant’s name. “There’s enough Spanish and Mexican food in Santa Barbara, but there’s nothing Cuban,” said Amy. So Sevilla closed its doors for a month, came up with a new name and menu to match the sleek and elaborate renovation Karan and Jones funded four years ago, and opened as Scotch Bonnet. The restaurant’s new namesake, the spiciest pepper in the world and a common ingredient in Caribbean cooking, typifies Scotch Bonnet’s place as one of Santa Barbara’s hot new restaurants.
The exterior of Scotch Bonnet’s historical landmark building seems mostly unchanged since its days as Sevilla, but one step inside is all it takes to realize that you’re not in Sevilla anymore. Dim lighting, splashes of red and orange furniture, and intricate tile mosaics conjure the perfect sultry Cuban ambience. The bar side of Scotch Bonnet features a beautifully crafted mosaic island perhaps more reminiscent of the architecture of Gaud- in Barcelona than anything Caribbean, but the spice it adds fits perfectly with the restaurant’s overall feel. In addition to an open dining room, Scotch Bonnet features a number of cozy booths and smaller tables that total a capacity of some 100 people across the dining room and bar, according to floor manager Tim Delaney. The booths, though intimidatingly small in appearance, are actually comfortable and intimate love seats lined with pillows, padded walls, and beautiful drapery that only enhance the dining experience for couples. Carefully placed lights allow you to see your food, but preserve the sensual dark that contributes to the overall mood.
Among the delicious items on the Scotch Bonnet menu, Amy Scott recommends the Guava Glazed Ribs, the Jerk trio, and the Havana-style paella. The paella fully lived up to Scott’s praises. This newest dish, according to Delaney, is spiced to perfection with a combination of ingredients that the chef refuses to reveal, calling the secret blend “essencia.” Other highlights of the meal I had the pleasure of savoring at Scotch Bonnet were the spicy Jerk drumettes beautifully balanced with a slightly sweet plantain sauce, the calamari paired with a deliciously creamy yet light spicy sauce, and the delicately tender chicken wrapped in Serrano ham. To top it all off, the suggested wine pairings were lovely and the desserts to die for. The banana trio might have been better served as a solo consisting of the caramelized banana halves with dulce de leche sauce. (The banana fritters and tamale were uninteresting and somewhat bland.) But the culinary pinnacle of the meal was the guava panna cotta with passion fruit sauce, a sublime combination of creamy-sweet and tart that made all other parts of the meal pale in comparison.
Overall, the dining experience at Scotch Bonnet is new, fresh, and a wonderful addition to Santa Barbara. It’s clear that Amy Scott knows all of the ingredients for culinary success and has triumphed with Scotch Bonnet. While she claims that “food first” is the formula, I’m certain that she’s added her own “essencia” to the mix, because nothing could be so seductively delicious as Scotch Bonnet without a secret ingredient.