Generally speaking, chefs aren’t waiting for me outside their restaurants when I go to meet them for an interview. Then again, most chefs don’t work where David Cecchini does. Cecchini has the good fortune to be the chef at The Harbor, and given its position halfway down Stearns Wharf, the restaurant has to possess one of the best 360° views in the entire food world: Pacific swells, Santa Barbara city lights, Santa Ynez Mountains majesty, spectacular sunsets, even the occasional whale.
But despite the usual adage that the closer a restaurant is to the ocean (and The Harbor is over the ocean) the less good the food tends to be, Cecchini is the rare master chef who works in a gorgeous spot. That’s not a surprise, after his 10 years at the Wine Cask in its original heyday and then six at his own Restaurant Nu, and it’s experience that you taste. Take the crab cake of ultimate crabbiness, which is wonderfully crisp on the outside (perhaps panko?) and set off with not just roasted chili sauce, sweet corn, and papaya but also a wonderful and wonderfully surprising little bit of puréed butternut squash. “There’s crunch on the crab cake,” explained Cecchini, “so it’s a nice contrast.” But it’s more than that—it’s inventive and right, a clever play on earth and sea, not just inventive and wacky.
For Cecchini quickly found there’s little room for whimsy at The Harbor. “When I got here, I didn’t understand the clientele, so to me it was a challenge,” he said. “What I did at Nu, what I did at Wine Cask didn’t always translate. You have to understand your market, and I spent some time figuring that out.” He recalled his first Friday at The Harbor, when he served a calamari pasta with squid ink. “It came back to the kitchen faster than I ever thought possible,” he laughed. “You have to please the masses. There are certain things you can’t do.”
Of course, the things Cecchini can do most chefs can’t. A lot of that is attention to detail, as with his version of the Santa Barbara Roll, an appetizer that’s been on the menu for over 20 years and is really just a grilled chicken wrap. Cecchini make his version terrific tailgate food by zipping up homemade salsa and gorgeous guacamole. The glory is in the details of each dish, no matter its register. “I was really impressed when I got here by the quality of ingredients in house,” Cecchini explained, pointing out all beef is USDA prime, for instance. “A lot of places serve stuff that isn’t exactly what they say. I’ve had a fun time redesigning some dishes to really mirror the quality of the ingredients.”
The touristy aspect of The Harbor doesn’t shake Cecchini, either, despite the restaurant serving 500 diners on a busy night. “It comes in waves here, if you want to use that word; it’s been a big house for a long time,” he said. “But I grew up in a family restaurant [an Italian spot in Burbank] that did 900 plates on a Friday night, so I’ve done it. It’s just getting yourself really, really prepared.”
The Harbor is also busy preparing itself for “the local Santa Barbara natives,” said Cechhini, drawing them in with a just-finished lobster fest and now a series of chef’s tasting menus Monday through Thursday, with three courses for $24.99. Cecchini has also taken over the wine list and plans to make it both more representative of Santa Barbara County and more diverse, particularly the by-the-glass program.
In fact, that list might someday feature Cecchini’s own label, as his first venture into winemaking, made alongside Steve Clifton of Palmina, will be released soon. First there will be a 2006 Sangiovese with grapes sourced from Eleven Oaks and Honea vineyards, and the 2007s and 2008s are just going into bottle.
More than anything, Cecchini hopes people realize The Harbor has been family owned by John Scott (who also operates Harry’s, the Tee-Off, El Paseo) for more than 20 years. “That might not be really visible when you walk by,” he said, “but there’s a lot of pride in Santa Barbara and this business. It’s a real conscious effort to serve quality food and keep getting better.”
For fine food with a perfect view, sail on down to The Harbor, 210 Stearns Wharf, 963-3311, harborsb.com.