If all you want for Christmas is something to sink your two front teeth into — specifically in the form of a new dinner spot capable of satisfying your foodiest desires — it seems Santa’s been listening and is under the impression that you’ve been very, very good.
At Scarlett Begonia, the little space in Victoria Court that’s given Tupelo a run for its weekend brunch money (and where the wait is often longer; hint: go during the week!), the promise of dinner has been on the table as long as the homemade, organic ketchup. (Yes, seriously.) Teasers, in the form of a series of snout-to-tail dinners and one epic, four-hour, nine-course extravaganza (“It was a sweet deal,” said owner Crista Fooks. “I mean, we made no money, but it was over-the-top insane”) this fall, have allowed executive chef Joel Huff — whom Fooks knows from when they were students at SBCC’s Culinary Arts school in the ’90s and who joined her at Scarlett in May — to show what he can do, whetting the appetites of a small but devoted following. After a lengthy search for someone who could handle breakfast and lunch — and not just handle it, but master it in a manner up to Fooks’s exacting standards — Alex Getz (formerly of La Cumbre Country Club) signed on for daytime duty as sous chef at the end of November, and Huff was freed to dig into dinner, which he’ll do every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.
“It’s super produce-motivated; everything starts there, sourced from the Farmers Market, and the chef transforms it into something you would never imagine, with the proteins then kind of accenting the produce,” said Fooks of the menu, citing the “pumpkin party on the plate” that accompanies a seared albacore, and a “mad scientist” cauliflower salad that showcases the veggie several different ways. “There will be things that stay week to week, and things that will go. The menu will constantly change; eventually we’ll start to add to it.”
In one sense, I suppose it would be fair to call the way they’re taking on dinner “conservative,” but only in terms of the size of the menu (three appetizers, three mains, and a couple of desserts to start), and even that is more a reflection of the attention Huff gives not just to each dish but to every component of each dish. As Fooks said, only half jokingly, “He’s working really, really hard; I’m worried he’s gonna put himself into an asylum if he keeps this pace up!”
In fact, conservative is the last word I’d use to describe Huff’s food. Consider, for example, the item described on the menu as “Risotto/essence of forest/winter truffle/63 egg.” While that might leave you expecting the standard mushroom risotto, instead you’ll find a base of many grains — including quinoa that’s been cooked, dehydrated, and puffed to taste like popcorn — and house-made parmesan water, in addition to Milliken Farms mushrooms, and a sous-vide egg. But that’s not the half of it: “The risotto is our closest thing to a circus act,” Fooks said. “He had our manager go and collect things from the forest — acorns and pine needles — and he puts it in the bottom of big salad bowls. Then he adds these pretty black rocks that he keeps in the oven all night so they’re hot, and the server pours hot water over it, and you get this really amazing smell of the forest, and the risotto is served in a smaller bowl placed inside the big one.”
Such food can run the risk of playing second fiddle to the show, or alienating less adventurous eaters, but one bite of that risotto — or the lobster with Bilbao chorizo and salsa verde … or the short rib with carrots and smoked potato — is all it takes to prove that the flare is just for fun, and Scarlett Begonia is, first and foremost, all about food that just tastes good.
“One customer grabbed me and said we’re the most food-centric restaurant in Santa Barbara,” said Fooks. “And that’s the best compliment we could get.”
While Santa Barbara has no shortage of dinner spots, fine-dining restos that serve up thoughtful, eye-popping, and tasty food in an approachable way (and in an approachable setting) are harder to find. But, thanks to Scarlett Begonia, that list just got a little bit longer. Merry Christmas to us!
Scarlett Begonia (11 W. Victoria St.) is planning a small plates menu for New Year’s Eve. Call (805) 770-2143for details.