Your mind will compare fish bites with the finest sips of wines, as both have delicious, lingering finishes. Your fish will come gracefully scored by the deftest of knife slashes to help hold its sauce, to tenderize. Your kitchen knowledge will grow, as you will now know why to score fish at home. Your cup will runneth over, as it’s a celebration of abundance. Your sense of an outside world will fade away amid a soundtrack of 1930s and ’40s Japanese jazz and the centering presence of a room rich in wood and golden tones.
You are dining at Sushi|Bar, the third attempt to make the old bar space of the Montecito Inn work — RIP Frankland’s Crab & Co. and Chaplin’s Martini Bar. This one sort of has to make it, as it’s practically perfect, if certainly dear. Now a 10-seat jewel box of an omakase restaurant — that is, the chef serves you what he thinks you need — it’s the second such sushi spot owned by Phillip Frankland Lee, whose original is in Encino.
You get to choose from two different tasting menus: a 17-course full omakase for $110 per person, or an abbreviated nine-course “lite” (their word, their spelling) omakase for $65 each. There are drink pairings, which you really, really want, for more money. But an evening like this isn’t just about the cost; it’s about the show, the stories, and the chance to sit up close to chefs and have a customer-to-worker ratio of, at worst, 10 to 4. Get ready for some pampering.
That starts before you even get into the deftly redesigned space, as you enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail in the Montecito Inn lobby. It’s sort of a Japanese take on the classic Penicillin, with Japanese whiskey and more ginger than usual — cleverly, the only ginger you’ll get for this sushi meal, as the palate-cleanser at the bar is a scarfable pickled cucumber. Such sips alert your palate for all that’s in store.
What’s in store will change with the seasons as the fish run, of course, and while they hope to go local when possible, Phillip Frankland Lee, owner, and Lennon Lee, head sushi chef (and Phillip’s brother), won’t hesitate to go for the product they think is best, often from Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Even weekly, they might prefer Hokkaido uni to urchin from Santa Barbara, for example, even if that might sound like heresy to locals.
All that said, each bite will be glorious. From a somewhat traditional o-toro (tuna belly), brushed with Ohishi Sherry Cask Whisky, topped with a tiny veil of brûléed sliced pineapple, and then quick-brushed with a mix of brown sugar, wasabi, and house-made soy, to a rule-breaking yellowtail with a dab of sweet corn pudding, wasabi, and the quick crunch of a scattering of sourdough breadcrumbs, you will pause to ponder each mighty mouthful.
That’s one of the most striking things about one-bite omakase: Pleasure is so present, and then so fleeting, it centers you in the world and makes you instantly more thankful — and more receptive for the next gift of goodness.
But what else could you get from such a talented team: Sous chef Julian Tham did time at two-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco; the man serving up the drinks (from sake to beer to cocktails to an Alsatian white blend made specifically for sushi) and much of the patter (he’ll tell you the full story of that wine and more) is Jaime Rocha, who has worked at most of Santa Barbara’s best spots (think Wine Cask and San Ysidro Ranch); and hostess Nathalie Letendre doesn’t just check you in — she makes sure all your food allergies and off-limits foods are exactly noted. If you don’t drink, they’ll ask before that whisky gets wisped onto your fish.
Things will end in a crescendo of flavor, a bite of bone marrow about which Lennon says, “It tastes like butter and meat had a baby.” Then there’s that uni even the urchin-averse will love, as it’s full without being funky. Dessert, as with the other establishments Scratch|Kitchen owns on the property, comes from pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee, Phillip’s wife: white-chocolate matcha over kaffir lime ice cream, pretty as a gift box. The closing matcha tea ceremony, when the whole room toasts, seals the unforgettable meal.
In the Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Rd.; sushibarmontecito.com.