The coastal setting, small-town charm, enthusiasm for wine, and arts appreciation are just a few of the reasons Santa Barbara is frequently referred to as the American Riviera. Merci Montecito, Elizabeth Colling’s lovely new café in the Montecito Country Mart, further adds to this European kinship.
Colling attended culinary school at the Ritz Escoffier School in Paris and moved back to California to lend her baking prowess to Bastide and Spago in Los Angeles. Subsequently, she landed her dream job in New York City as a food editor at Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Wedding magazines, developing recipes and styling the finished product.
When her husband, sommelier Stephane Colling, got a job at San Ysidro Ranch eight years ago, this food and wine power couple found themselves in the perfect place to cultivate their epicurean passions. Gushed Colling, “It’s such a dream to live here.”
Colling started offering pop-ups around town with fresh sandwiches, salads, and other to-go items for busy people in search of quick, quality meals. This past May, she opened her light and bright brick-and-mortar café, which now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner fixings, such as meatballs with plum tomato marinara to go.
The fare is a mix of California fresh with Parisian influences. Clever salads include the kale with avocado, pistachio, fennel, and farmer’s cheese, while a sandwich highlight must be the Jambon-Beurre — with just thinly sliced ham on a fresh baguette with French butter, the old adage “quality, not quantity” rings true with every savory bite.
“We source our ingredients from a mix of places, but most important to us is the quality,” Colling explained, “whether it’s the French butter or Valrhona chocolate or the Michigan cherries we use for our granola.”
Colling has always loved desserts, and her craft shines in her creative pastries, such as the creative orange-blossom cinnamon rolls. You can often tell the talent of a baker from their most simple items, and her chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven and dotted with flaked sea salt, was quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.
While Colling bakes, her partner Nicholas Barainca, who has worked as chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons, is behind much of the food. As I ogled the case of tasty-looking take-home items, a customer chimed in that I must try the chicken paillard, deeming it “the best in North America.” After one bite of this succulent and perfectly seasoned dish, I can’t disagree. Customers can also pick up a bottle of wine to pair with their dinners.
As we wrap up our chat, a group of regulars stops by to ask her how the cake she made for an event for Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom the previous night turned out. As Colling describes the cake, the group leans in smiling, relishing in the little details, hands full of homemade chocolate caramels and fresh-baked cookies.
“What I love so much and didn’t know I would is the interaction with the customers,” said Colling, whose big-city skills have brought some welcome excitement to our seaside town while keeping its small-town heart intact.
1028 Coast Village Rd., Montecito; (805) 220-0877; mercimontecito.com