Just opened last week, Sama Sama (“You’re welcome” in Indonesian) Test Kitchen is a familial and cultural collab that offers authentic, street-inspired dishes prepared by a foursome of chefs with A-list cred in a space designed by a duo of equally top-shelf stock. Chef Ryan Simorangkir is the cousin of Kenny Osehan, one half of Shelter Social Club (she and her husband, Chris Sewell, ran the design-forward Presidio Motel — as much a community gathering space as motel — for eight years before taking on the Ojai Rancho Inn), and SSC played a major role in the conception and creation of Sama Sama — not just in terms of design. In fact, when Simorangkir decided to open a restaurant in S.B., he initially thought bistro. It was Osehan who suggested Indonesian food.
While Osehan and Sewell’s talent lies in identifying — and filling — the voids so many Santa Barbarians simply lament, the suggestion wasn’t totally random: Simorangkir’s family moved from S.B. to Indonesia before he was a year old; he lived there through high school. But, he confessed, he spent that time craving lowbrow kiddie fare like mac ’n’ cheese and chicken nuggets. “Honestly,” he said, “I hated Indonesian food growing up.”
That changed after returning to the States for culinary school, working with pal Tyler Peak at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the W Hotel in Puerto Rico, and then, along with Peak, running the kitchen at a restaurant back in Bali. It was during this more recent time in Indonesia when his appetite for the cuisine truly bloomed. “I was working there, had no money, just eating street food,” he said, smiling. “Then I fell in love with it.”
But developing a taste for the food is one thing; learning to cook it is something else. And the restaurant he worked at in Bali was fine-dining French. So, Sama Sama in his sights, he did what anyone in his situation might — he called in his aunties.
While Simorangkir appropriated family recipes and Peak learned from his girlfriend’s mother’s cook, Osehan and Sewell — on days away from Ojai — busily transformed the space (once a sushi restaurant called East), stamping it with a fresh, minimal, vaguely exotic aesthetic. (Simorangkir takes no credit for the design: “I completely trusted Chris and Kenny; I was kinda blindfolded to all that,” he said.)
Those who’d been to East might be shocked to discover that, beyond the kitchen, the back opens to a courtyard nearly as large as the restaurant itself. Now outfitted with two beautiful long tables and a handful of cozier two-tops, the yard is bordered by high brick walls and, along one, the greens and purples of a blossoming kitchen garden (“My only request,” said Simorangkir), all of which lends the vibe of Elsewhere.
Alongside chefs Ricardo Aguilar and Kevin Hoover, both of whom worked at Nobu in L.A.(Aguilar’s résumé also includes Thomas Keller’s Bouchon), Simorangkir and Peak are cranking out awesome renditions of traditional street fare, “with a bun here or a taco shell there, to keep it familiar,” said Simorangkir. The perkedel, or corn fritters, are already selling “like hotcakes,” as are the tempeh tacos
As for Osehan and Sewell, “It’s been a great opportunity for us to branch out and create a different kind of space for community and visitors to come together, which is what we love most,” said Osehan, “bringing people together in a space that feels good and, in this case, tastes good, too!”
For now, the bar is still held by the landlord, which means yes, there is booze, but no, the bar is not part of Sama Sama. Come end of May, they’ll take ownership of the bar, too, and they plan to feature a cocktail menu that reflects the food, using locally sourced ingredients (and, at that point, do a more thorough renovation of the restaurant’s interior).
Until then, Sama Sama is filling a culinary void with fresh, exciting, expertly prepared grub. And for the restaurant named You’re Welcome, S.B. should be nothing but thankful.
Sama Sama (1208 State St.) is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Call (805) 965-4566 or visit samasamakitchen.com.