Chef Robert Perez describes the difference of moving from Nevada City, where he ran the acclaimed Citronee Bistro and Wine Bar for 13 years, to Santa Barbara, where he now owns Seagrass with his family, in a very simple way: “It’s really just the size difference, which is why we moved here. Santa Barbara is a city without being city-ish. We’re just happy to be here.” But he lights up with pride saying more: “We’re happy the regulars from Seagrass are coming in. At first they look at you,” he crosses his arms and adopts a stern mien, “‘You took our restaurant.’ And then they leave after dinner looking really pleased.”
It’s taken a long time to get to Santa Barbara for Chef Perez, who grew up in the Los Angeles area but went to culinary school in the Netherlands. “I came from a family of restaurateurs—it just runs in the blood,” he said. “But I just missed California and my father got ill so that’s what brought me back from Europe.” After a stint at the prestigious Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, he and his family opened Citronee. His son Ruben’s life partner, Erin Gailsdaughter, who works the front of the house, chimed in, “We had great clientele who loved us, but there just weren’t enough people there.”
The Perezes looked numerous places when considering their move, from Taos to Park City to Ojai, and then almost had a deal for 1129 State Street, the spot last occupied by Restaurant Nu. “Robert Perez—it’s funny, but the realtor for 1129 has the same name—is a friend of Mitchell [Sjerven, the previous owner of Seagrass],” Gailsdaughter explained. “Mitchell told [the other] Perez he was looking for a quality operator to take over Seagrass.” Soon the deal was done.
“Seagrass had a great reputation, but we don’t want to be a formal restaurant,” Chef Perez asserted. “We want casual elegance. There’s just so much potential here to get more people in the door. We are staying true to the three premises of sustainability, organic, and local, but we’re not just local—we’re going to offer the best food from around the world. It will always be sustainable, though.”
Gailsdaughter stressed, “I don’t want to sound like a braggart, but it’s my pleasure to serve his food. We call it ‘art to the eye, art to the palate.’ The other night someone ordered the black cod with edamame in cream, roasted trumpette mushrooms, and veal reduction. Afterward he said, ‘Tell the chef this is cod from god.’”
As for those wondering about changes, they will be small and incremental. “The menu will evolve at its own natural pace,” Chef Perez said, “depending on the seasons and what’s available.” There is one more meat dish on the menu than on former Chef John Pettit’s old menu. The restaurant will also soon feature a three-course prix fixe, Sunday through Thursday evenings, for $35. “It will be market-to-table inspired,” Perez said. “Something casual. Even people who want to fine dine want other options.”
That doesn’t mean Seagrass isn’t going to have some items for more adventurous diners, too. Sure, you can have a delectable duck confit with sweet-and-sour red cabbage, or you might want to try an appetizer of a sautéed scallop and boudin noir (yep, that’s blood sausage). “We want to do some offal, sweetbreads, but the question is how much are you going to sell?” Perez asked. “Sometimes it takes a week or two for things to catch on. But I feel confident having foie gras on the menu. There are days it’s flying out the door.”
Beyond the delicious food, it’s very important that the establishment is a family affair. Along with Robert and Erin, son Ruben is the official owner and son Richard is the director of wines (which, while still centered on the Central Coast, are bridging the world more). Then there’s Marianna, Robert’s wife, about whom Erin said, “She has a beautiful Dutch accent and was a crucial part of Citronee in the kitchen for salads, desserts, appetizers.” Added Chef Perez, “She’s the aesthetic eye, the one in charge of all the details. She fills in wherever she has to. We’ve even already had her working in the kitchen, after promising she’d never have to do that.”
Marianna will also be helping as they try to alter the room itself. “We want to change the color scheme a little bit, make it a bit brighter,” said Perez. “They really achieved that subtle luxury thing, but we want to get away from that stigma of that higher-end special-occasion restaurant.”
Savor the Perez family’s labors of love at Seagrass Restaurant, 30 E. Ortega Street, 963-1012, seagrassrestaurant.com.