“We ultimately want to be the best brunch experience in town,” says Chef Alexander Bollinger of Angel Oak at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara on the western edge of Goleta. “If we’re not there yet, we’re very close to it.”
With a menu of brunch classics, upscale cocktails, epic ocean views (that may include migrating whales), and nearby Haskell’s Beach as the perfect place to stretch your post-feast legs, Angel Oak is certainly closing in on that crown just weeks after starting brunch service. Said one staffer when my family visited in late March, “It’s almost a better brunch restaurant than a dinner restaurant.”
Homegrown chef: Raised in Montecito, where his parents still live, Bollinger attended Montecito Union and Santa Barbara High before embarking on a culinary career. He became interested in food while young, thanks to his mom, an avid gardener and a good cook. “I wrote in my 6th grade yearbook that I wanted to be a professional chef,” said Bollinger. “That was before Emeril came on the Food Network and all that.”
…with ample experience: After graduating in 2005 from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Bollinger, who is 36 years old, built his résumé working for famous chefs (Michael Voltaggio, Eric Ziebold, Tyler Florence) and respected hospitality groups (Charlie Palmer, Kimpton) in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. He returned to Santa Barbara briefly to work at Cadiz and then came back for good to open Angel Oak in 2016. “I’ve been in full control of the menu since day one,” explained Bollinger, who now lives on Sola Street with his girlfriend, who works for the Montecito Country Club.
Classic menu: “People try too hard to make brunch inventive,” said Bollinger. “It needs to resonate with your childhood and things that you had as a kid.” So he adheres mostly to classic brunch dishes: eggs Benedict, steak and eggs, bagel and lox, and so forth. “For the most part, people don’t do a very good job of executing simple things,” he explained, proud of the menu’s French omelet that’s straight out of the Escoffier Cookbook. “Our prices are a little more expensive, but I feel like techniques we’re using and the quality of ingredients represent a good value.”
During our meal, the croque madame ($21) was rich, savory, and gut-sticking; the fresh lox plate ($22) featured house-cured salmon with pickled onion, herbed cream cheese, avocado, and capers; the “AO” cobb salad ($26) came with huge slabs of Alaskan king crab; the country sausage patties with the basic two eggs toast entrée ($22) were brilliantly spiced and carried a great chew; and the lemon ricotta pancakes ($18) were a lesson in fluffy, from the smoothly whipped cheese to the soft cakes, all offset by sweet, tangy, almost crunchy rinds of candied lemon peel.
Bollinger’s goal? “Quality ingredients, executed perfectly in a timely fashion with service that’s unparalleled.”
Designer drinks: The Bloody Marys ($16) are the star of the cocktail menu, served with options on the booze, mix, rim, and garnish. I went with Wheatley Vodka, spicy mix, Tajin seasoned salt rim, and a thick-cut slice of peppercorn- and Espelette-crusted Beeler’s bacon — one of the best Bloodys in my long-term memory.
Kid-friendly nature: As you await the meal and then leisurely enjoy it, your kids can go hang with the naturalists from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures. With binoculars, informational posters, and even Lego whales to construct, they serve as the Bacara’s kids’ program. But they’re not babysitters, so make sure your kids are engaged and well-behaved as they peer for dolphins, whales, and swooping hawks.
The challenge: Despite Bollinger’s efforts to attract notoriously stationary Santa Barbarans, the Angel Oak clientele remains about 80 percent hotel guests. “It’s just hard to get the local clientele out here,” he said. “They feel like you’re driving to L.A. or something.”
And don’t forget dinner: Every night, Bollinger runs Angel Oak as a “progressive, modern American steakhouse” with a strong seafood kick. “We try to keep things fun and playful and nouveau while respecting the classics,” he said.
4•1•1 | Angel Oak at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara (8301 Hollister Ave., Goleta) offers brunch on Sundays only, 10:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. Call (805) 571-4220 for reservations, which are recommended. See riztcarlton.com.