For Courtney Ladin, when it comes to creativity, nuance is everything.
“You can have two chefs or two artists, and if you give them the same ingredients or the same brushes and paint, they’re going to do things differently,” said the Santa Ynez–raised, classically trained chef who recently opened the restaurant called Nuance on lower State Street inside the Hotel Indigo (119 State St.;  845-0989; nuancesb.com). “These nuances make them who they are.”
In Ladin’s case, that translates to Nuance’s “urban bistro” vibe, where the walls are decorated with the street-art-inspired work of Sean Anderson and the airwaves loaded with golden-era hip-hop from Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, and The Pharcyde. It’s the former home of both Anchor Woodfire Kitchen — whose mastermind chef couldn’t keep it together despite the buzzing popularity — and Blue Tavern, whose rock-star chef/owner also fled his entire SoCal restaurant empire under a blaze of similarly hush-hush un-glory.
But Ladin doesn’t believe the seemingly ideal location — which is nicely placed between the Funk Zone and West Beach, just a couple of blocks from Stearns Wharf — is jinxed, despite the steady construction hum of the La Entrada development. “I know that there is not a problem,” she explained to me one recent evening, wearing a flat-rimmed ball cap and a thick chain around her neck. “There’s already been a huge outpouring of really warm regards. It’s pretty amazing.”
As for the food, Ladin, who graduated from Santa Ynez High and UCSB before heading to Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, decided to put a modern twist on a number of classics: beef tartare with pickled mushrooms and chiles, for instance, and foie gras with strawberry rhubarb jam and petite mâche microgreens. Even the roasted chicken gets a multiculti twist, lacquered with honey harissa served atop sweet corn pudding with charred baby leeks. Other menu highlights include the wood-oven soft and smoky focaccia with Calabrian chili, the fresh hamachi with radish and lime vinaigrette, the English pea risotto with truffled parmesan foam, and the pork chop with plums and polenta. And dessert itself is worth a reservation: strawberry shortcake with tarragon, panna cotta with Madagascar vanilla, and Valrhona chocolate ice cream with Twenty-Four Blackbirds cocoa nibs, to name a few.
This is Ladin’s first time leading a restaurant, but she worked in esteemed kitchens in Maui for five years before moving back to Santa Barbara, where she’s run her own personal-chef business for about three years, essentially bringing a restaurant experience into private homes. Through that undertaking, Ladin happened to cook for Bill Chait, the restaurateur/investor who owns the lease on the Nuance location. She had no idea he had a place in town, but the time was right when he suggested they work together.
“I wanted to put my style on a menu,” said Ladin, who is happy to be back in the kitchen. “I love working in the restaurant because of the camaraderie. You become family with these people. You’re in the trenches. And if you love what you do, you’re not suffering.”
Behind the Bar: George Piperis
Nuance’s cocktail program is as intricately considered and creative as the food, from the tropical-beach-minded, don’t-drink-too-many Painkiller and soda-shoppe-ready, pink-as-can-be Harry’s Ramos Fizz to the pre-Prohibition-nodding Chamomillionaire, a spin on the before-the-cocktail-was-invented Crusta. That’s thanks to mixologist George Piperis, who, along with Los Angeles bartending wizards Julian Cox and Nick Meyer, developed a true educational regimen for the bartending staff, as well as some brilliantly tasty drinks.
“Everything is fresh every day,” said the Visalia native, who’s been mostly in Santa Barbara since the late 1990s. Piperis subjects the staff to a full cocktail curriculum, tests and all, teaching them the roots of each drink family, which he says are like the mother sauces of cocktails. “We’re doing it this way because it’s delicious and it’s fun,” said Piperis. “Why charge someone $12 for a cocktail if it’s not something special?”