Though Santa Barbara supports a lot of restaurants for a relatively small town (thanks, tourists!) and pioneered farm-to-table menus (thanks, farmers markets!), it’s historically been tough to succeed when focusing on a tight niche of ethnic cuisine. Italian and Mexican? Slam dunk. Friulian and Oaxacan? Good luck.
Yet recent strides indicate a shift: raw fish in a Mediterranean style at Olio Crudo Bar or in a Peruvian way at Cielito, for instance, or Southeast Asian street fare at Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, and even the daytime weekend Ethiopian at otherwise French-focused Petit Valentien. And since our collective palate appears well attuned to sushi and the culinary culture that comes with it, perhaps we are indeed ready for kaiseki, the upper echelon of Japanese eating.
That’s the gamble of Yoichi’s on East Victoria Street, where an extremely fresh, multicourse menu is prepared in the pure and meticulous kaiseki way, intended to show off the true essence of each ingredient, from wagyu beef and miso black cod to mountain vegetables, flying fish sashimi, and eel-wrapped tofu. “People imagine a very fancy thing, especially in America, and it is fancy, but it is simple cooking, using traditional techniques to bring out the real flavors,” said Mogi Kawabata, who runs front of the house while her husband, Chef Yoichi Kawabata, cooks in the back. “If it’s mushrooms, it has to taste like mushrooms.”
Raised in Mongolia but fluent in Japanese, Mogi met Yoichi in San Francisco, where he was cooking after stints at, among other places, Nobu in Tokyo. They got married, had kids, and were visiting a friend who worked at Sakana on Coast Village Road when they realized Santa Barbara could be their new home. After remodeling the former Spiritland Bistro in a stylish yet sparse style with starkly dark and light tones, the couple opened Yoichi’s this summer and have been serving their seven-course, $85 set menu ever since, changing it up at the beginning of each month.
On October 1, my chef-friend Mark and I were the first to try that month’s new menu, and the 90 minutes of eating was a steadily eye-opening experience. Though technically seven courses, we wound up eating about 15 different things because the appetizer box included five items — delicately sweet, roe-filled komochi ayu; rich wagyu bites; fresh oyster with ponzu; mountain vegetables from Japan; and salty boiled baby sardines with rock seaweed — and the sashimi and sushi courses included multiple slices, from flying fish and grunt to yellowtail and Japanese uni. Other highlights included the pike eel and egg cake soup, topped with a grilled matsutake mushroom from Oregon, and the grilled miso-marinated black cod, topped with ginger and chestnuts. Even the “pumpkin pudding,” which was based on kabocha squash, was light and enlivening.
But it’s not just the food; it’s the purposeful presentation. Dishes emerge in a perfectly paced sequence that’s reflective of the Japanese tea ceremony and are served on ceramic plates made especially for the restaurant. In between servings, Mogi explained that the kaiseki tradition goes back to the monks, who would put hot stones, aka kaiseki, on their stomachs when hungry. These dishes, then, symbolize that level of purity. At one point, I remarked that the food was so delicate and intricately presented that it almost forced you to eat slowly. “Sounds like you’re starting to get it,” said Zack, the waiter.
The only thing holding Yoichi’s back from the full dining experience was the lack of alcohol, a permitting hurdle whose height was not fully appreciated. But that’s changing this week, as they have a temporary permit and will start pairing dishes with sake and wine. The November menu will be the first to benefit from that option, so items like soy-marinated salmon caviar, steamed monkfish liver, deep-fried ice fish, turnip-shrimp-mushroom soup, and yellowtail with daikon will get some liquid support. They’re also now serving an omakase sushi platter with soup and dessert from Tuesday to Thursday for those seeking a less-involved, more-affordable experience.
Walking back toward State Street after dinner, I began thinking that Yoichi’s is a test for Santa Barbara diners. Are we mature enough in our palates and confident with our cash to indulge regularly in this exquisite form of elegance? Can our small town support the niche cuisine that’s usually found in much bigger cities? I hope so, and the early signs are positive.
“We have a lot of confidence in our food,” said Mogi, who said that all of her customers are leaving happy. “We knew it was going to take some time, but we are on the right path.”
Try Japanese kaiseki cuisine at Yoichi’s, 230 East Victoria Street. Call (805) 962-6627 or see yoichis.com.