Most menu readers know this, but you can’t always believe what you read in a restaurant. Even in this age where it seems necessary to tell us the provenance for every blasted ingredient right down to the four types of salt, some people are still leaving a bit of mystery. For instance, if you ordered the heirloom tomato salad currently on the Cádiz menu, you’d see it’s coming with Piave cheese, spring greens, and Banyuls vinaigrette. What it doesn’t tell you is there’ll be a lovely little swath of caramelized shallot purée on that plate, and it will be something you crave afterward.
When I pointed out how much I loved that rich, roasted purée, Cádiz’s Chef John Pettitt replied, “Yep, yep, that’s the bread and butter on that plate.” If so, I asked, why isn’t it mentioned on the menu? Pettitt said, clearly bemused, “I don’t always list all the ingredients. I like to leave it open for me to be creative and spontaneous. Sometimes I’ll taste an item one night and think, ‘Okay, let’s do it this way tonight.’”
The overall way for Cádiz is to take all the things that make Santa Barbara a food paradise (Pettitt shops at the Tuesday and Saturday Farmers Markets, of course) and see that through the prism of the cuisines of the southern Mediterranean, from Morocco east to Sicily. “When you go to a small town in Europe, generally speaking, that town has food that’s only served in that town: the cheese, the wine, the produce,” Pettitt explained. “Basically, Santa Barbara is a small village like that. Everything is specific to here: good wine, the produce is immaculate, there’s great California cheese.” Add it up, and you get a tapas-heavy (if that’s not an oxymoron) menu that encourages sharing—and, indeed, the place is already a social buzz, probably partly because of that.
Cádiz is owned by Michael and Dante De Rose and Joe Nagy, who, according to Pettitt, were working on the project in the spot formerly occupied by Bricks and Casa Blanca for almost two years. All that work shows, as the space is elegant and Moroccan-infused, from the graceful ceiling arch to the light sconces. But they almost wound up with no one in the kitchen. “There was a chef before me that dropped out in January, and the owners were like, ‘What are we going to do now?’” Pettitt explained. “The chef who left knew me and recommended me. I started late January, and we had a benefit on February 11, so we just had to make it happen really quickly. It just all sort of came together. I had a group of people for the kitchen all sort of waiting for me to get a job so I could hire them,” he recalled with a laugh.
Pettitt was out of a job after a string of high-profile Santa Barbara positions at the Wine Cask, Hungry Cat, and Seagrass. When Mitchell Sjerven sold Seagrass to Chef Robert Perez and family last November, “I was as shocked as anyone else,” he admitted. “Mitchell told me on a Friday, ‘I sold the restaurant to a chef/owner,’ and I thought, ‘I’m out of a job.’” It wasn’t all bad for Pettitt, though, as he related, “I spent a couple of months home watching the kids. I got to go to some Christmas functions. I didn’t know what they were as usually I’d been cooking for them.”
Now at Cádiz he’s more than happy with the vision established by the De Roses and Nagy. “We want a constant flow of food; we want people to come in and try everything,” Pettitt enthused. “I designed the menu to sort of create a flow. Start with the oysters and have some cava while you catch up with your friends. We don’t want any pretenses here.” Indeed, while there are full entrée items, it’s a menu made for grazing, sharing, happy hours, and late nights, for it’s open ’til midnight Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Catch the southern Mediterranean cuisine wave at Cádiz, 509 State Street, 770-2760.