WEATHER »
The Blue Owl at Zen Yai

Paul Wellman (file)

The Blue Owl at Zen Yai


The 2011 Foodies

A Baker’s Dozen of Deliciousness


There’s nothing terrible about twos for the second year of The Santa Barbara Independent’s annual Foodie Awards, which publicly recognize the people and places responsible for making our town such a feast. Once again, we received close to 100 nominations from more than two dozen of the area’s leading tastemakers and then fine-tuned that list to a baker’s dozen of deliciousness.

From pizza for adults and Chinese food with a squeeze to killer croissants, fabulous flatbread, and service with a smile, the 2011 Foodies shine the light on spots we should all celebrate. Do we see any trends that stand out? Why, yes: State Street isn’t such a bad place to eat anymore, or, in the case of our Lifetime Achievement Award winner Downey’s, it hasn’t been for nearly three decades. So without further hors d’oeuvres, we present this year’s especially exciting epicurean entrées.

Late, Great Dining Award: The Blue Owl at Zen Yai

If the thought of getting food at — or even staying up ’til — 11:30 p.m. is too daunting for you, then you’ll just have to get over it, for Cindy Black’s Southeast-Asian street-food–influenced menu at The Blue Owl is worth feeling tired the next morning. The red-curry shrimp roll with fried tofu and caramelized onions might be the single best thing to eat in S.B. right now. And while dealing with drunks means that “some nights, I’m Don Rickles with a vagina and a wok,” Black also admits, “We have grass-fed burgers from Rancho San Julian, and organic produce from the market. I don’t want to get typecast too much as drunk bar food ’cause I want to open in the day eventually with a much nicer menu!” (425 State St., 705-0991; theblueowlsanta barbara.com)

By Paul Wellman (file)

John Pettitt at Cádiz Restaurant & Lounge

Tops in Tapas Award: Cádiz Restaurant & Lounge

When Cádiz debuted, it immediately caused a stir, partially because of its mildly Moorish exotica interior, but mostly due to Chef John Pettitt getting to play with the toolbox of southern Mediterranean flavors, coming up with items like lamb albóndigas (meatballs). “What separates Cádiz from other restaurants is that everything is hand-picked by myself from the Farmers Market,” Pettitt reveals. “I examine each individual vegetable before I purchase it. I develop menu items by walking the market and buying items at their peak of each individual season. Simple, to the point, and captures that time of the year in one dish.” Of course, it’s tapas, so you’ll eat a lot more than one. But perhaps that means tapas is really just Spanish for yummy. (509 State St., 770-2760)

Embracing the Past Award: Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman (file)

Cold Spring Tavern

That Stagecoach Road street address is a hint at what we’re talking about: Cold Spring was established in 1886, during Grover Cleveland’s first term as U.S. president. It’s easy to imagine a stagecoach rolling back up, but on weekends now, it might have to fight for a parking spot with the Harleys for the beer, bands, and tri-tip. Somehow, even a roadside motorcycle stop seems quaint at this point. Plus there’s venison, rabbit, and buffalo black-bean chili, the kind of dish that makes it feel as if someone not only cooked for you but also hunted for you, too, especially when that stone hearth is ablaze. (5995 Stagecoach Rd., 967-0066; coldspringtavern.com)

The ‘Izzy’ Lifetime Achievement Award: Downey’s Restaurant

John Downey
Click to enlarge photo

James Sinclair

John Downey

The danger is taking John Downey for granted. His restaurant has been on State Street since 1982, and it’s decidedly not a place to chase after food fashions (he might be the anti-Voltaggio). But he was sourcing the best local produce years before that was faddish, and that care is still evident on every plate. “Very soon after we opened, someone wrote a restaurant guide,” Downey remembers. “It was a kind review, which wrapped up with something like, ‘It remains to be seen whether John Downey will have the business savvy to make it last.’ In true Brit style, I never ever considered that failure was an option, although I remember clearly stating that ‘we can do this intense pace for five years and beat the odds … maximum. Then we’ll have to move on.’” Luckily, that on is still going on, and if you want a snapshot of what’s up at this venerable spot, go for the four-course Taste of Santa Barbara menu. Who knew we tasted that good? For that and so much more, Downey’s takes home the Lifetime Achievement Award this year, named the Izzy after the first recipient, La Super-Rica Taquería’s Isidoro Gonzalez. (1305 State St., 966-5006; downeyssb.com)

Sassy, Classy Service Award: Esther Lau at Hollister Brewing Company

Hollister Brewing Company server Esther Lau
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Hollister Brewing Company server Esther Lau

Everybody who goes to HBC knows Esther, and Esther knows everyone who goes to HBC. She’s been there for almost five years, and was at Camino Real Café (the same location as HBC) for another five years before that. That’s knowledge earned; so when she tells you what beers to drink in what order, you just do it, for she’s always right (you’ll never order a Hip Hop Double IPA first on her watch). “You know she is genuine about it because you see these same people coming back and requesting her section; you hear them talking to her about her family and what she’s been doing since the last time they were in,” says HBC manager Jennifer Rose. “She is definitely a classy lady, and we are lucky to have her.” (6980 Marketplace Dr., Goleta, 968-2810; hollisterbrewco.com)

By Paul Wellman

Full of Life Flatbread Chef Dylan Fultineer with a San Marzano Tomato pizza with heirloom tomatoes, barata, and fresh basil

Reason to Pull Off Highway Award: Full of Life Flatbread

On weekends, Full of Life’s frozen-retail-pizza-production space gets turned into a restaurant that you can only wish was open eight days a week. The flatbreads are the stars (how could they not be with toppings like chanterelles, smoked pork belly bacon, stinging nettles, and farm eggs?), but the apps always amaze, too, even when they seem to be “merely” salads. A big part of that are all the of-the-season specials that take advantage of the best farms in the area. Not that they needed to, but Full of Life also landed Dylan Fultineer (Hollister Brewing Co., The Hungry Cat) as head chef this summer, guaranteeing yet more wonderful weekends. Oh, did we mention the best priced and most regionally eclectic wine list around? (225 W. Bell St., Los Alamos, 344-4400; fulloflifefoods.com)

Half-Off Doubles Happiness Award: The Hungry Cat’s Happy Hour

The Hungry Cat bartender/server Shaun Belway with a "Magic Elixer"
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

The Hungry Cat bartender/server Shaun Belway with a “Magic Elixer”

It’s always hard to be clear when cocktail traditions begin (thank you, drink #2!), but The Hungry Cat was at least at the forefront of the area’s move to potent potables made with freshly squeezed juice. Stir in a respect for the classics (a Dark and Stormy, say), while shaking that up with experimentation (an Orange Julius), and you get a drink program that’s second to none. Even better, from 3-6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, all those cocktails (and draft beers) are half-price. A 10-buck cocktail can burn more than grain alcohol, but for a fiver, everything’s nicer, especially a Greyhound Proper, with Plymouth gin, and then there’s that lovely candied grapefruit peel. It’s not like sticking around for some peel ’n’ eat shrimp would ruin the night, either. (1134 Chapala St., 884-4701; thehungrycat.com)

Kevin Steele

Olio Pizzeria

Pizza Night for Adults Award: Olio Pizzeria

It’s often hard to hear the word “pizza” and not expect “joint” to follow, along with everyone after the big game rowdily celebrating, often to a soundtrack of auto-tuned radio pabulum and video-game noise. Not so, Olio. Here the mood is more sophisticated, the food more elegant, things more Italian as in Italy, not Brooklyn. The food is fabulous, with the pizzas very much in the Neapolitan style, but what sets this spot apart is its adventurous wine program. “Part of our concept includes giving our guests the enoteca experience you get in Italy, and having the option to purchase a glass, quartino, mezzo litro, or full bottle affords you with a nice array of flexibility in terms of how much and which types of wines guests would like to try,” general manager/proprietor Elaine Morello says. “Our emphasis at the pizzeria is on interesting Italian and local wines.” (11 W. Victoria St., Ste. 21, 899-2699; oliopizzeria.com)

Family-Friendly Feast Award: Petrini’s Restaurant

Petrini's owner Joe Bohnett (seated) Victoria Browning (server) and Manny Ortiz (cook)
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Petrini’s owner Joe Bohnett (seated) Victoria Browning (server) and Manny Ortiz (cook)

Eating out with young kids is almost impossible unless you’re at a place like Petrini’s, where the waitress is bound to scoop your toddler up and take him around in her arms while you finish your eggplant parmigiana — which, by the way, is only about $12 and big enough to feed the whole family more than once. That’s why Petrini’s is a Santa Barbara institution, serving up Italian-American fare since 1958 under the founding faces of Joe, John, and Manny on Calle Laureles. And earlier this year, they took their show on the road to Goleta, so expect many more happy and no-longer-hungry families in the Good Land. And don’t forget their house dressing, too, available to take to your own house by the case. (14 W. Calle Laureles, 687-8888; 5711 Calle Real, Goleta, 964-1200; petrinis.com)

Onion Pancake and a Hug Award: Red Pepper Restaurant

I’m starting to feel sappy here, extolling not just family-friendly spots, but those that welcome you into their family. But at Red Pepper, it will happen to you, at least if you believe half the folks on Yelp: You’ll get hugged on your way out. How could a good fortune cookie top that? Red Pepper also offers the tantalizing onion pancake: thin, fried to a pleasing crispiness, full of onion flavor without overpowering. But it’s the sauce that sets these off, perhaps something as simple as soy plus sesame with the right mix of cilantro, scallion, and red pepper, but they could easily bottle the stuff and it would fly from the shelves. That they do wonderful vegetarian versions of meats is just a bonus. (282 Orange Ave., Goleta, 964-0995)

By Paul Wellman

Renaud Gonthier gets a kiss from his wife Nicole

Perhaps This Is Paris Award: Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro

Renaud Gonthier evidently is taking it easy on the competition, for his wife, Nicole, when asked, “Is there anything Renaud can’t bake well?” answers, “Renaud is an extremely talented pastry chef, so there is nothing that he can’t cook well. The one item that he chooses not to cook: cupcakes.” But those chocolate-and-almond croissants have led to religious experiences for many, to the point where there are now two Renaud’s and one on the way in Gelson’s. And while he also won the UCSB Arts & Lectures– and Whole Foods Market–sponsored King of Pastry contest this spring, don’t just go for the sweet treats — try the spot-on pan-bagnat or any of the egg dishes, and you’ll see that he can do pretty much anything in the kitchen. (3315 State St., 569-2400; 1324 State St., 892-2800; renaudsbakery.com)

By Paul Wellman (file)

Three Pickles staff

The Lazarus Award: Three Pickles in Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens

Three Pickles already served up some of the town’s best sandwiches (their Presidio alone is in the running for perfect pastrami), but when they moved into the old dining room of Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, it warmed the hearts (and livers, no doubt) of many who had missed that classic watering hole — when it closed in 2006, The Santa Barbara Independent essentially ran a memorial issue. It’s no stunt, as the Three Pickles guys all love the place, and now even offer fortune cookies with your check. The gang is still hoping Jimmy’s old owner Tommy Chung might give up his eggroll recipe, so this resurrection of a classic could keep getting better. (126 E. Canon Perdido St., 965-1015; 420 S. Fairview Ave., Goleta, 964-4585; threepickles.com)

By Paul Wellman

Bar manager Nick Faccuito shows off Intermezzo’s wine on tap

Eco-Cool Award: Wine Cask’s Wine-on-Tap Program

With the installation help of Brian Thompson from Telegraph Brewing Company, Wine Cask and Intermezzo now only offer wine by the glass on-tap: less glass, less cork, less cardboard, more wonderful local wines fresh from the wineries. “I decided to go exclusively to the tap system primarily out of a desire to be a leader in the trend, providing fresh wine in an eco-friendly manner,” claims Mitchell Sjerven, co-owner. “I also believe strongly that the quality of wine we are able to get is fantastic due to the desire of our local partners in the wine industry to be a part of such a program. It was critical to our mission of providing an excellent dining experience to know that we could work with wineries like Au Bon Climat, Brewer-Clifton, Carr, Melville, Palmina, along with many others, including, of course, Margerum!” Nothing like fine wine that makes you feel not just right but righteous when you drink it. (813 Anacapa St., 966-9463; winecask.com)

Related Links

event calendar sponsored by: