Pairing heavily spiced Indian cuisine with wine can be a daunting task. So Santa Barbara’s curiosity was piqued with the opening of Bibi Ji back in February 2018, in which globally renowned Australian-Indian chef Jessi Singh teamed with powerhouse sommelier Rajat Parr, who was raised in India but lives here. However, the State Street establishment — led on a day-to-day basis from the get-go by Alejandro Medina — found quick success among fans of eye-opening food, natural wines, and a buzzing scene.
“A lot of people are making destination trips, and we’re very grateful for that,” said Medina of the folks who travel to eat at Bibi Ji from Los Angeles and elsewhere. “People are starting to comprehend the wine program, and knowing that it’s a place for natural wine. It’s really come into fruition, and people are asking for orange wine left and right.”
What to do when your unique formula works? Double down on yet another cultural mashup: Indian-inspired brunch.
The new weekend menu, served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, is very tight, with only four items bridging South Asian flair with a nod to American expectations. The uni toast, served on an activated charcoal loaf from nearby Oat Bakery, blends fresh sea flavors with a familiar avocado base. The breakfast kati rolls combine eggs, paneer, and spinach into a thick taco of sorts, with cardamom or spicy pepper dipping sauces on the side. The ceviche takes the fresh fish of the day and lifts it with cumin and cilantro. And, in the belly-filling department, the lamb curry chilaquiles rely on popadam instead of tortilla chips and plop watermelon pico de gallo atop the poached eggs.
But food is just part of the equation. Brunch uses the table on Bibi Ji’s back porch aside De la Guerra Plaza, employs DJ Andrew Elia of Party Proper to spin on Sundays, and focuses strongly on beverages, particularly pét-nat, or pétillant-naturel, a fresh, typically rustic form of sparkling wine. Each weekend, a new selection will be available by the bottle for $35 (a popping deal for those not keeping track of escalating restaurant wine prices), and there’s occasionally bound to be other options too, like when Parr’s team is pouring his own line of wines.
“It’s a much more casual, laid-back style of brunch,” said Medina, who’s cool with people stopping by for a quick bite and bottle with friends and content to host folks who prefer to linger for hours. “The primary goal is creating a really chill environment with affordable sparkling wine.”
Today, Bibi Ji is very much Medina’s show. In May 2018, only three months after opening, Jessi Singh moved with his family back to Melbourne. That’s where he’d started his restaurant empire before opening Babu Ji restaurants in New York (still thriving) and San Francisco’s Mission District, which closed before he came to Santa Barbara. Without any fanfare, the resulting sale made a managing and majority partner out of Medina — who’s been running the operation since before opening, when he still worked at Loquita — and minority partners for Parr and Gary Singh, the executive chef who is Jessi’s cousin and opened the other restaurants as well.
“What Raj and I really wanted to do was switch ingredients to be everything hyper local,” said Medina. “Since then, everything has been hand-purchased at the farmers’ market, and for seafood, we’re still working with [Stephanie Mutz’s] Sea Stephanie Fish. [Mutz] also puts us in contact with the local fishermen. We really wanted to hammer it home on that Santa Barbara touch.” So rather than Aussie-Indian, as Bibi Ji was initially billed, the restaurant now reflects a more assuredly Central Coast–Indian cuisine.
Brunch just started on Memorial Day weekend and will run through September. Though he’s wondering what will happen during Fiesta, when the adjacent plaza is packed with booths, bands, and dancers, Medina knows how he wants the rest of the summer to roll out. “Whether you’re moving to the next spot or this is your ending spot,” he explained, “we want that back patio to be your landing zone.”