A fresh wind has blown through the restaurant formerly known as Seagrass. Those heavy shutters and carpet are gone, the concrete floor painted a vivid mustard. You can even enter from the invitingly angled door that meets the corner of Ortega and Anacapa. This is the Perez family’s sister restaurant to their thriving Black Sheep gastropub, and it’s cleverly called Oveja Blanca, which means “White Sheep” in Spanish.
“When we came to Santa Barbara and bought Seagrass, we kept it Seagrass for a handful of reasons,” explains general manager Ruben Perez about their 2011 entrance to town. “Mitchell [Sjerven, Seagrass’s original owner] had put so much money into it, and it was a fairly new restaurant. It felt like a shame to give that away, but it never felt like our own. It’s hard to take someone else’s concept and run with it.”
The inspiration came from Ruben’s visit to Miami. “He came back insisting, ‘We have to do Cuban food!’” said his dad, Chef Robert Perez. But since Cuban places weren’t cutting it even in much bigger Los Angeles, the family opted to go for global Latin cuisine. “We wanted to combat calling it Mexican food, even if much of the menu is rooted there — we saw what happened to Cielito,” said Robert. “I love the food of Peru, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Spain, so this allows us to have fun. The flavors are so clean, bright, and authentic — just refreshing.”
There are some larger plates, including banana-leaf-braised beef cheeks, but most of the menu is small, shareable plates leaning to seafood. Start the night, for instance, with the boquerones, zippy, pickled white anchovies set atop a dab of eggplant and piquillo pepper mash and a crostini — think of this as vivid surf and earth. Then there’s the fresh white fish ceviche that makes you realize not all citrus-ified fish is the same — it’s got that sour kick but pleasing richness, too.
“This restaurant allows me to go back to my roots,” explained Robert, who’s mixing flavors from his childhood with the French technique he’s developed working from the Netherlands to Napa Valley to Nevada City. “Last night I worked with nopales, and I’m in the kitchen like a little kid,” he said. “‘This is awesome! Taste this! Taste this!’”
If anyone’s confused which Sheep offers what, Ruben put it this way: “Black Sheep is more of a gastropub, a little more hearty and rich, country cuisine. Oveja Blanca is lighter and a little more elegant without a huge price tag. I’m tired of the ‘eating for the elite’ thing.”
Beyond their fine menus, both Sheep offer a welcoming experience. “That’s when it’s glorious, hearing that sound of silverware clinking on plates, and the laughter of guests, and taking in the smell of all the food,” Chef Robert extolled. “More than the cooking part, that’s what’s in my DNA.”
Oveja Blanca is at 30 East Ortega Street. Call (805) 963-1012 or see ovejablancasb.com.