A parmesan wheel is an impressive hunk of formaggio, pretty much four feet in diameter, two feet tall — a Mack truck tire worth of cheese. Striking all by its mighty self, the wheel is really something to see when hollowed out and turned into a mixing bowl of sorts for your supper. But that’s the kind of treat in store for you if you head to Bella Vista at the Four Seasons Biltmore for a Wednesday Chef’s Table.
It’s almost like an extension of Restaurant Week, a rare chance to sample fine dining at a reduced rate ($45 per person). The menu kicks off with a choice of two first courses, proceeds to a pasta dish — perhaps a Gnocchetti “Cacio de Pepe” that gets prepared tableside in that giant parmesan wheel and finished with extravagant summer truffle — and then a dessert, which some weeks will be a sampler.
Forget any ideas you have about hotel restaurants seeming impersonal and interchangeable. The Four Seasons head chef Marco Fossati sees these intimate evenings as a chance to connect. “There’s nothing more beautiful than having a conversation with a guest,” he explained. And then he animatedly — he’s a delightfully physical talker — tells of giving guests advice as to how to keep their home risottos from sticking. “Sure there’s Instagram and Facebook; you can’t discount that,” he said. “But human contact is more important.”
Of course, the dishes Fossati and his team prepare are as Instagram-sexy as any you might find. A recent first course, abalone tartare, came adorned with spring radish so tiny and cut so thin they looked like pink flowers blooming amid the shellfish. But these dishes aren’t just good lookers — that abalone was spiked with more onion than you might expect, playing off the mollusk’s chewiness.
“It’s an opportunity for us to test more product and get feedback directly from our customers,” said Fossati. “The more people learn and have fun, the more we’re doing the right things.” Plus there’s a side benefit to the intimate give-and-take. “Employees love it too,” explained the chef. “They can talk and learn more skills.”
The chef’s table showcases seasonal fare, but Fossati is quick to clarify that means something different in Santa Barbara, where the growing season is long. “For 10 to 12 months, you have beetroot, you have kohlrabi,” he said. “Seasonality is different here.” And availability and quality can change from year to year, especially for seafood. “I keep hoping to get a chart for fish, but every month it changes completely,” he explained. “My first year here, the local halibut were more moist; this year, not as much. I want to be sure I can keep up consistency.”
Fortunately, his talented team likes to experiment, so they can keep rolling with whatever growers or fisherpeople provide. Sometimes that might not be local, even; currently he’s excited about grano arso wheat to make pasta. That’s burnt whole wheat flour, a product of cucina povera (“poor cooking”) from Italy’s Puglia region. “You might think it will be bitter,” he said. “But it’s a nutty, sweet flavor with a hint of coffee.” It’s the perfect counterpoint to dishes as different as one that features morels and sweet garlic cream or one with sea urchin and clams.
And it’s always hard to argue with the bella vista at Bella Vista, as Fossati pointed over the patio across to Butterfly Beach and the glimmering Pacific. “This is not normal,” he deadpanned. “What you would have to pay to see at the zoo or Sea World you get for free here, the dolphins and seals.” And a heck of a meal deal.
4•1•1 | The Chef’s Table is on Wednesdays at Bella Vista in the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara (1260 Channel Dr.). Call (805) 969-2261 or see fourseasons.com.