There’s a difference between a drink and a cocktail, and, for Santa Barbarians thirsty for a next-level libation of the latter’s persuasion, Scarlett Begonia owner Crista Fooks’s brand-new bar program is just what the mixologist ordered. Fooks, who’s turned the little, tucked-away Victoria Court nook from something one would stumble upon accidentally into a place worth seeking out (Saveur Magazine just sent some editors to investigate; they declared it “the best food they’d had all year”), has given the same meticulous treatment she and Chef Joel Huff bestow upon the food to her cocktails. (Case in point: She plans to start smoking water for the ice cubes used in her bourbon drinks.)
“Before I had kids, I always said I wanted to open a bar,” Fooks said. “Then I was like, breakfast!” But the spread took hold: first breakfast and lunch, then dinner on weekends, now dinner Tuesday-Saturday, and, with the weeks-old liquor license in hand and a newly remodeled bar, cocktails (and tap beers). It’s a void the self-described “spirit fanatic” has been looking to fill. It’s a spot for a grown-up happy hour — she prefers the term cocktail hour; no two-for-one vodka-tonics here — with a serious bar program and (brace yourselves) a patio! Just in time for summer.
Fooks, who’s currently running the bar program herself (although in the market for a savvy bartender), has built a full bar exclusively of small-batch, specialty, artisan, and often organic spirits including eight tequilas, six bourbons, and an assortment of gins, vodkas, rums, scotches, and one brandy. Though two bottles are a little more recognizable: One is Jameson (“Joel made me get it for the kitchen,” she said with a look); the other is Plymouth Gin, selected, at least in part, for its historical import. (The British Royal Navy would fill big bottles of it for provisions for their long journeys and “prove” it hadn’t been watered down by dousing gunpowder with it and then testing it to make sure the gunpowder would still ignite … Hence the term “proof”?)
Plymouth shows up in the “Church Martini,” a classic (gin, orange, and vermouth) that supposedly dates back to when people first began, well, medicating in order to get through mass. (Bless me, Father …) Bottles from Paso Robles distillery Re-Find are what you’ll find in the well; specialties include gin and vodka from Cap Rock, an organic brand out of Colorado, Swan’s Neck vodka, and Pink Pigeon rum, the proceeds of which go to save, you guessed it, the pink pigeon (who knew they came in pink?). The cocktail list covers all the expected bases (yes, there’s a margarita — organic — and a Manhattan — with Goldrun rye whiskey, out of California), though frequently freshened up, and with a surprise twist: The Pink Swan is a vodka drink made with fresh watermelon/lemon-limeade that should be pleasantly eye-opening for the Cape Codders of the world.
And, Fooks being Fooks, Scarlett being Scarlett, and those spirits being deserving of the utmost respect, you can be sure that anything that gets mixed with them is fresh, organic, and delicious. (Fooks told me a tragic tale of some missing jugs of fresh tomato juice made for the house Bloody Mary, juiced from the worth-their-weight-in-gold Tutti Frutti Farms heirlooms … Anyone for brunch?)
As will be the cocktail snacks menu she’s crafting along with Huff. They’ll start with the staples of a smart cocktail hour: cheese, charcuterie, deviled eggs. Then they’ll add more interesting bites, every bit as refined as the items on their regular, ever-expanding menu. For example, their play on a corn dog (yes, a corn dog), which they served at a recent Ensemble Theatre Company event: pork belly battered in tempura and fresh corn, rolled in freeze-dried corn, then hit with shisu powder and soy sauce powder, and served with kimchi ketchup and Asian mustard. “Basically, we’re kinda trying to train people that we’re about the adventure of food,” Fooks said, “and carrying that through to the drinks.”
But as much as the food influences the cocktails, the cocktails may well influence the food: “If I have martinis now,” she said, “I need a steak!”
Watch this space.
Scarlett Begonia is located at 11 West Victoria Street; (805) 770-2143; scarlettbegonia.net.