Drama is a central ingredient at Angel Oak, which the Bacara opened as its fine-dining restaurant in June. The sprawling coastal resort at the western end of Goleta was without an upscale dining option for the 18 months since the closure of Miró, which debuted in 2000 as the property’s original restaurant. The space’s extensive remodeling and renovated vibe make it almost unrecognizable to those who’d known it before.
Upon escaping the resort’s red-tile-roof motif, you enter a breezeway lined with stark columns and punctuated, at the end, by the floor-to-ceiling mosaic of a downward-looking female face. Once inside, the angular modern design is offset by many gnarled bonsai trees, and softened further by the abundant seaside scene outside, for the restaurant is set, almost precariously, atop the windswept bluffs that soar westward into the Gaviota Coast.
Once seated in front of the setting sun — perhaps after a craft cocktail at the bar, like the St. George Citrus Vodka–based California Lookout that my wife and I enjoyed — you’re given impressively large, almost imposing menus, familiar to anyone who’s visited a proper big-city steakhouse. And that’s the theme Chef Vincent Lesage is going for.
“We wanted to take the traditional steakhouse, make it our own, and just elevate the concept a little,” said the 31-year-old Parisian chef, who worked in numerous Michelin three-star restaurants in his hometown before coming to California to chef at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in 2008 and then the Balboa Bay Resort in 2013. “If you look at the Santa Barbara dining scene, there are not a lot of steakhouses and not a lot of high-end options. We wanted to be the place where you come to celebrate a special occasion, put on some nice clothes if you want to, and be happy.”
But Angel Oak is cool with casual, too. “Everybody knows what a steakhouse is, so it’s not intimidating; it’s not a meal with 20 courses,” said Lesage, who joined the Bacara in 2015 and lives nearby with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. “We didn’t want to be that. We wanted to be a place where you can put on your flip-flops and T-shirt and come see us, too.”
What’s dramatic about the dishes themselves are that, in this age of inventive menu descriptions, Lesage’s aren’t overwrought with head-scratching foreign words and bizarre ingredients. “I realize that French cuisine sometimes makes people think that it’s extremely fancy and complicated, which it is to a certain extent,” said Lesage, explaining that his classical training forms the everyday backbone of his food. “I want to get away from that. You won’t see French names on my menu, or at least very little. I think it scares people off. I use my techniques, and I don’t talk about it. I’m trying to make something that people will recognize and enjoy.”
In our case, we started with the halibut crudo, which floated on lightly spicy chili oil and uplifting flavors of mint, cilantro, and pickled cucumber, and the Ellwood Canyon Farms heirloom tomatoes, which swam in a liquid burrata and was topped with featherweight puffed croutons seemingly made from a mysterious pulse. Next, highly recommended by both Lesage and our informative, smiling server, James, came the lobster and house-made gnocchi. Those potato pastas looked and, thanks to the lobster, tasted like little bay scallops, and the dish’s inherent richness was smartly balanced by ample lemon juice. The pinot blanc by Four Graces in Oregon’s Willamette Valley fit each of the dishes quite well, as did the view of the Channel Islands and the various vessels, from oil rig tenders to fishing boats, that bobbed across the horizon as we ate.
For our main dishes, my wife opted for the pan-seared jumbo scallops, generously large and expertly caramelized, sitting in an almond butter purée with pickled cauliflower. Being at a steakhouse, I went for the dry-aged New York with black truffle shavings atop — it was solid, if a bit sparse on the plate all alone, making me wish I’d opted for one of the sauces (peppercorn sauce, bourbon coriander, etc.) that are offered for $5 or the house butter (coriander-lime-Espelette or truffle and herb) for $3. Yet the Iter Larner Vineyard Syrah and the wild mushrooms with poached egg and house bacon were excellent backup sidekicks. (Credit the wine awesomeness to GM Branden Bidwell, former sommelier at Wine Cask.)
For dessert, I’d heard about the Candy Bar — and it was mesmerizing. It emerges as a squat bowl topped with a flat roof of frozen dark chocolate, upon which hot chocolate sauce is poured, melting the ceiling like molten lava and opening into a cavernous display of salted-caramel ice cream and the same sort of peanut butter crunch you find in a Butterfinger. It’s dangerously delicious and perhaps a tad ridiculous for fewer than four people.
The last bit of drama comes with the bill, which is in line with the tradition of splurging at the steakhouse. Being the restaurant’s invited guests for the evening, we never got one, but the menu items alone that we ordered add up to $153, drinks, tip, and tax not included. Yes, we over-ordered for the sake of well-rounded research (and were eating leftover steak, scallops, and mushrooms into the week), so our tab for two approached $250. For those who don’t eat out much at such establishments, that’s not really as extravagant as it looks — we once neared that total for just appetizers and drinks at San Ysidro Ranch’s Plow & Angel, and I routinely drop $100-plus for myself when eating with friends in bigger cities.
That being said, by strategically ordering just a few appetizers, sharing the main dish, and sipping on a couple of drinks, you could emerge for about $150, which is the usual cost of business at a nice place downtown. Or just grab a couple of cocktails at the bar, hit the bountiful market seafood tower ($42 for two people), spend under $100, and then hit Haskell’s Beach for a sunset walk.
Santa Barbarans are already enjoying Angel Oak with frequency, but the primary clientele is and will likely remain the Bacara’s overnight guests. With the combined demographic, the place has been “extremely busy” since opening, said Lesage, and it was bustling on the Tuesday night when we visited.
Though the curtains just recently came up for Angel Oak, the early applause appears to be steady. Time will tell if Lesage, Bidwell, and crew have hit the magical combo of high-end but welcoming for tourists and locals alike. That’s surely the hope. “We are open to everybody,” said Lesage. “We don’t want to be stuffy.”
Angel Oak is located at the Bacara Resort & Spa, 8301 Hollister Avenue. Call (877) 735-3132 or see angeloaksb.com.