Santa Barbara's old post office, prior to being remodeled as the new Museum of Art.

This holiday season, when you inevitably join the weekend hordes descending on downtown Santa Barbara to shop your wallet out, don’t just think of your family and friends. Think, too, of yourself – particularly your tastebuds and tummy – because the new afternoon tapas menu at the Museum Cafe is certainly worth your attention.

The cafe – which is located in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art behind the gift shop (itself a reliable place to find eclectically arty presents) and offers a tasty lunch every day of the week – began serving tapas from 3 to 5 p.m. in early December. Together with a glass of Spanish red wine, the small plate selections are a welcome surprise for anyone battling the long lines and overworked clientele of State Street’s retail stores, offering much needed nutrition and the opportunity to rest your feet while checking off the holiday chores.

I discovered as much this weekend when, due to a quick bathroom stop at the museum, my wife and I noticed the tapas menu. Not too hungry but intrigued, we sat down and opted to share the tapas trio, which costs $14 and includes a glass of wine. (Individual tapas are $6 a pop.) For the glass of wine, my wife wanted white, but upon learning that the reds were from Spain, I vetoed the blanco and went for the Campo Viejo, a tempranillo from Rioja. For our three tapas, we chose the cinnamon figs with cabrales cheese, arugula, and Rioja syrup; the baked artichoke hearts with soy chorizo; and the two purees of rosemary white bean and olive tapenade.

When the dish arrived, owner Brenda Simon brought it out and also threw in the toasted manchego cheese and roasted garlic bread (because “they’re to die for,” she said). The tapas were amply sized (two pieces per order, essentially), and they were all excellent. The cheese bread was perfectly crisped; the artichoke crowns and light, wispy soy-rizo a tasty duo; the figs equally sweet and savory, thanks to the bleu-like cheese; and the purees a nice, hummus-like topping for toast. The wine, served in a tall, stemless, oblong glass, played the diligent partner, and my wife assured me that her espresso was equally fitting.

It was probably the best $14 I’ve spent in awhile, and the only thing I left wondering was what the rest of the menu tasted like. And to make you equally curious, here’s the remainder of the list: roasted sweet pepper and sausage crostini; salt cod brandade; Spanish potato tortilla; garlic shrimp with Spanish olive oil and hot chili flakes; and chicken empanaditas with cream piquant.

So if you didn’t already need an excuse to stop burning up that credit card and take a State Street shopping break, you’ve got one now. Check it out, and let me know how the rest of the tapas taste.


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