Being in Santa Barbara, you can get tacos anywhere, but then there are wild mushroom tacos, topped with lemon crème fraîche, harissa, pepitas, and baby spring onion. First, that makes my spell-check go ouch. Second, it’s incredibly delicious, a taco by way of Morocco. Third, it’s vegetarian, as are all the dishes at the newly opened Mesa Verde, rising out of the ruins of Cliff’s & Co. on, fittingly, the Mesa, Santa Barbara’s bluff-top neighborhood.
It turns out that the property’s owner, Jason Akraa, really liked the food at Sage, Chef Greg Arnold’s place in Echo Park, so Arnold brought similar offerings up here. “All organic, lots of Farmers Market, completely seasonal vegetarian,” explained Arnold of the menu. “Mostly vegan, with a little bit of cheese and a little bit of dairy.” Surprisingly, Arnold stressed, “We’re not doing any seitan, almost no tofu — instead we’re offering the richest bounty of the season.”
The aim is for that bounty to please the eye as well as the palate. “Taste is always first and foremost, but my background is as a painter and guitar player,” said Arnold. “The visual — it’s just an extension of everything I’ve always done.” Prepare, in other words, to encounter beet emulsion splatter that mimics the red of a Cy Twombly.
The entire Mediterranean serves as menu motivation — “Morocco, the south of France, Syria, Sicily, Turkey, all of it,” said Arnold, “I don’t really get into Mexican or Asian” — and he grills the veggies for “bigger” flavors, explaining, “Sautéing vegetables in a bunch of shitty oil doesn’t do the trick.” And that won’t change, as Arnold promises to stick to his hands-on methods. “I can spot when you’re serving Trader Joe’s bread,” he explained, noting that Mesa Verde will be making its own milks (coconut, almond, kefir) and juices from a gigantic $22,000 press. “That’s big for me: the integrity of doing what you say you’re going to do.”
The building’s thorough renovation — even the frame was torn down — took months but was aided by Akraa, who is also a contractor and architect. “We decorated it together, choosing which concretes, which reclaimed woods,” said Arnold. “It was a mess. There’s no way we could slap on a coat of paint and open. It was too gnarly. We hope people see we took this dead space and made something alive.” The result is open and airy yet grounded — just hip enough yet not too threatening to fit into the mellow Mesa location.
There’s an herb garden out back for immediate kitchen needs, but Arnold continues seeking out the best purveyors, such as the coffee he’s buying from The French Press. “Getting our vendor accounts — organic pastry flour, organic faro — it’s not as easy here,” said Arnold, as opposed to L.A.“But now that we’re open, they’ll come in, and I’ll meet them.”
The restaurant now offers a casual lunch, a juice bar, and a to-go case, as well as a slightly more involved dinner menu. Arnold hopes Mesa Verde will attract “all those people jogging and doing yoga.” He explained, “It would seem they’d love to eat fresh organic food. I want to keep prices as good as I can for the quality I want. I want to have that cool neighborhood vibe.”
Mesa Verde is now open for lunch and dinner at 1919 Cliff Drive. Call (805) 963-4474. (Don’t park in the 7-Eleven lot!)