In 11 years of living in Santa Barbara, I’ve learned one thing: Do not mess with tradition. Santa Barbarians are staunch supporters of the town’s institutions, and you cannot alter them without a strong reaction.
The Wine Cask has been a landmark of the Santa Barbara lifestyle for more than 20 years. Many of us have celebrated a holiday, a birthday, an anniversary, or a promotion by going to this venerable restaurant with its welcoming courtyard and an interior that is by far one of the most beautiful rooms in our city. It also boasts a comprehensive wine store and Intermezzo, a chic bar/bistro that is a required stop before any event at the Lobero.
Many people were apprehensive when one year ago, Doug Margerum-the company’s longtime owner-announced its sale. Bernard Rosenson, who owns the famous Sky Room in Long Beach, bought it, and went about making changes. Locals were rattled when the look of Intermezzo was changed into a slicker, modern version of what it used to be. The cozy couches in front of the fireplace were gone; more tables were brought in. The blackboards with daily wine specials disappeared as well as some of the favorite menu items. But nothing prepared some regulars for the removal of the tree that had been in the courtyard for years. People were angry. How dare they mess with something we considered a family member?
Last November, looking for a quiet place to have a meeting, I stumbled into the Wine Cask. I don’t think I had eaten in there since all the hoopla about the new ownership and changes. I remember sitting down so consumed with my business at hand that ordering food was an afterthought. When the meal arrived, both my dining companion and I were stunned. Our conversation halted. It seemed a miracle, and for a second I thought I was in Provence or some high-end restaurant in Paris’s 8th Arrondisement. I had one of the best meals I’ve had in Santa Barbara, ever. I made repeated visits after that night to reassure myself of my discovery, and yes, the same phenomenon happened every night: exquisite flavors and unexpected pairings of ingredients.
The miracle worker’s name is John Pettitt, the new executive chef. He worked as the chef de cuisine at Melisse in Santa Monica, a restaurant that has earned a coveted two-star rating from the Michelin Guide, making it one of the highest-rated places in Los Angeles. But as luck will have it for us, his wife got a job in Ventura, and they moved there with their 10-month-old son. “Santa Barbara was the perfect setting,” explained Pettitt. “To be surrounded by people who love food, the quality of the produce, and the local wineries-this is a perfect setting.”
His menu’s goal is to blend traditional French fine-dining, but with Santa Barbara and Southern California sensibilities. There’s a sense of surprise at the unlikely combinations: duck with beets, figs, and elderflower relish, and lemon or rock shrimp with baby artichokes and hibiscus broth. “I do classic French cuisine, and try to take away the heaviness associated with it. I try to lighten it up,” he explained. “I want flavors to pop in your mouth.”
The biggest shock to the system is the inclusion in the menu of four daily tasting menus. Anybody who’s worked in a kitchen knows that preparing a high-quality tasting menu is demanding-and that may be one of the reasons why certain high-end restaurants do it only sporadically. But world-class chefs like Jo»l Robuchon and Alain Ducasse do them in all of their restaurants. “I thrive on tasting menus,” Pettitt said excitedly. He sees them as a way to showcase and sample Santa Barbara’s fresh seasonal ingredients that he discovers in our Farmers Market. He has also included a vegetarian tasting menu, something that is highly unusual but welcomed: “I love playing around with the vegetarian menu. I want to tap into that audience.”
Talking with Pettitt is like conversing with an artist. He uses terms like “experimentation” and “balance.” He remarked, “I love learning, experimenting, I like trying things many different ways, and I love to teach and further everybody’s culinary experience.”
Owner Rosenson, proud of his new hire, explained, “I was looking for a significant chef who would bring the food to the level of the famous wine list here, and John has done that.” Rosenson has given Pettitt free range with the menu, but required only one stipulation: “I basically told him that wine must equal food and equal service. Those three things must be treated equally.” That motto has become their mantra.
I asked Rosenson about the changes to the courtyard and the infamous tree. “My purpose was not to offend anyone,” he explained. “The tree had droppings; branches were falling and were tearing up the building.” So he hired historian Alexandra Cole and landscaper Bob Cunningham to restore the landscape of its courtyard to mimic the way it was in 1926. The fountain, shrubs, and flowers have been arranged authentically as depicted in vintage photos.
But the food’s the thing at the Wine Cask. And oh, what glorious food!