During a recent dinner at the Wine Cask filled with surprising creativity and multicultural touchpoints, it was Chef Jeremy Van Kralingen’s first dish that really told the strongest story: a cross-section of octopus, doused with a jalapeño-pineapple relish and sprinkled with popcorn nibs that were seasoned Tajin-style, with salty chile and tangy lime. It was as delicious as it sounds, sweet and spicy and savory and seafood-y, each bite layered with textures from chewy to crunchy, paired expertly with a premier cru Champagne.
But the message was more poignant than just taste. This was a dish inspired by the chef’s Hawaiian-Chinese-Mexican-Dutch roots, enhanced by suggestions from his Latino kitchen crew, and delivered with the sort of stylistic care and flawless cooking techniques that have long ruled the Wine Cask way.
“When I first sampled it, it tasted like mezcal,” said Van Kralingen later that night. “It’s Latin and Asian cultures coming together, which I enjoy.”
It was also a departure of sorts from the traditional Wine Cask fare, which for decades adhered a bit more to classic French-inspired offerings, albeit through the Californian lens. “I have the freedom to just go for it,” said Van Kralingen of what’s changed since Anda Ashkar took full ownership of the restaurant last fall. “I think she wants even more change than what she’s seeing now.”
In July 2017, Ashkar bought out longtime co-owner Doug Margerum (whose family founded the enterprise in 1981) and co-owner/operator Mitchell Sjerven (who also runs bouchon on West Victoria Street); the two men stayed on board until September of last year. The trio originally teamed up to save the Wine Cask in 2009 after a series of controversial moves by then-owner Bernard Rosenson, who’d bought it from Margerum in 2007. For the next nine years, with Sjerven overseeing day-to-day restaurant operations, the new owners repaired the restaurant’s reputation and returned it to the height of fine dining in Santa Barbara.
Ashkar intends to uphold that esteem while letting the kitchen broaden its scope. “Chef Jeremy and his team merely needed a runway to showcase their creative talents,” said Ashkar. “He’s earned the opportunity and freedom afforded him, and we are proud to support him, whether it’s a street dog in Intermezzo or scallops and pork belly in Wine Cask.”
That means Van Kralingen isn’t beholden to any particular style, so long as the results are good and, of course, work well with wine. Even the wine list is shifting a bit, according to our server Nuri Monahan, a well-known face in fine-dining circles. “We’re shifting the program to be more international than just Santa Barbara County,” said Monahan, explaining that they want to offer diners a counterpoint since Central Coast wines are “super well-represented” in town. “It’s been really well received,” said Monahan.
But as the co-proprietor of the Santa Ynez Valley–based Point & Line wines, Monahan also proudly pours regional wines as well. That included a Santa Maria Valley chardonnay by Timbre that accompanied our seared scallops in corn-miso emulsion and a co-fermented red blend by Sanguis that enveloped bites of the pan-roasted ribeye.
As Van Kralingen worked the kitchen on the night of my visit, Monahan guided my friend and me through the octopus, scallops, and ribeye as well as dishes centered on bone marrow, crab, and lobster. Most are not on the regular menu, which still features familiar classics like duck confit, pan-seared salmon, and braised pork shank.
Instead, these dishes are more likely to show up as the daily-changing crudo appetizer or as part of the chef’s choice tasting experiences, in which you sit back and let the kitchen do all the thinking. The five-course menu is $75, with an optional wine pairing for about $35 or so; the eight-course tasting is $85, with a wine pairing that’s closer to $60. And because the Wine Cask has a Coravin device in the house to tap older and rarer bottles, even more luxurious wine pairings are possible, said Monahan, “if you want to go Gucci.”
Among the on-point pairing displays, we enjoyed the oven-roasted marrow served with crab fat and sourdough toast, leveled by a citrusy Von Winning riesling from Pfalz, Austria. And while a curious choice at first, the Napa Valley sauvignon blanc by Spottswoode provided an herbaceous slice through the richness of the squid ink spaghetti, topped with lobster claw meat and swimming in preserved lemon-flavored crème fraîche.
Toward the end of our gluttonous affair, Van Kralingen came out from the kitchen, and his face was immediately familiar. “That barbecue contest at Whole Foods,” he answered, and it clicked: Van Kralingen was one of the first-ever participants in a barbecue contest that this newspaper hosted for many years. We briefly reminisced about the silliness of that inaugural event, where people were forced to grill in the Whole Foods parking lot. (We didn’t exactly think the whole thing through, and thankfully our techniques were refined in the ensuing years.)
Since then, Van Kralingen worked at Café Luck, the San Ysidro Ranch, Julienne, El Encanto, and The Lark, before being hired by David Rosner about five years ago to join the Wine Cask team. Originally from Hilo, Hawai‘i, Van Kralingen originally came to Santa Barbara to attend SBCC and fell into the cooking life.
That time in the kitchen makes him hypersensitive to what it’s like working the line, a mostly anonymous, often thankless task whether you’re in fancy kitchens or burger joints. “I feel like we’ve built a positive-reinforcement culture in the kitchen,” he said in an ever-so-slight Hawaiian accent. He’s challenging his cooks to come up with the next best dish and says they have dozens of ideas ready for prime time.
“You want to feel important,” he said of what it’s like working in the back. “And everyone’s stepped it up, too.”
813 Anacapa St.; (805) 966-9463; winecask.com