There is a magical time of year in Santa Barbara. When the Valentine’s Day crowds have dispersed and dispensed with their wanton displays of public affection. When the icy chill of 68-degree weather has half the town hoarding Duraflames and huddling under weighted blankets. When restaurants serve extravagant fixed menus featuring reduced prices and mandatory desserts that, let’s face it, you’d be rude not to eat.
What is this glorious stretch of the calendar? Why, it’s Santa Barbara Restaurant Week, a wonderfully misnomered 14-day affair currently in full swing and running until March 6. The annual event affords diners the opportunity to sample more than 30 restaurants serving three-course meals at $25, $35, and $45 price points. Some proceeds benefit ProStart, a program designed to prepare high school students for careers in the culinary industry.
“It’s an opportunity for people to go try a restaurant they’ve been wanting to indulge at for an affordable price,” says event chair Leslee Garafalo, “and it’s for a great cause and helps support the community.”
This year, I mustered the selfless courage to eat my way through three of Restaurant Week’s most decadent dining options. Call me a hero if you must.
PARADISE CAFE, $25:
This downtown staple, which recently came under the Acme Hospitality umbrella, is participating in Restaurant Week for the first time. Manager Oliver Davis sees it as an opportunity for Paradise’s regulars to venture beyond the restaurant’s much-beloved burger, explaining, “You’re going to find some new things on an original menu that gives you a chance to explore.”
For the first course, Paradise is offering a rotating roster of mostly vegetarian soups in addition to shoestring french fries, smothered in garlic butter and served with a side of rosemary aioli. But recognizing that prix-fixe meals are a marathon and not a sprint, I chose to start with the house salad, mixed greens lightly dressed with a lovely lemon vinaigrette and tossed with cucumbers and garlic croutons.
For the entrée, I ordered the grilled fish of the day: oak-grilled swordfish, served atop garlic brown rice with charred broccolini and a white-wine butter sauce. Other options include orecchiette pasta, with Calabrian chilis and fennel sausage, and lemon-brined fried chicken, accompanied by crispy brussels sprouts and a drizzle of roasted chicken jus.
All of this tremendous food is, of course, merely a prelude to the sugary main event. Paradise offers either a scoop of McConnell’s ice cream or a slice of their house-made Paradise Pie, a semi-sweet chocolate mousse with a cookie-crumb crust and buttercream icing. My dining companion and I wisely married the two into one magnificent triumph of delicious depravity.
702 Anacapa St.; (805) 962-4416; paradisecafe.com
Longtime S.B. restaurateurs Tina Takaya and Ted Ellis opened this waterfront restaurant in October. “What we want to get out of Restaurant Week is to just bring in people who might not have come in because they assumed that we’re too expensive, when we’ve actually priced everything to be accessible,” said Ellis.
Starters selections include sesame-glazed Saigon chicken wings and a baby spinach and sauteed mushroom salad. I opted for the exquisite Crispy Korean Cauliflower: florets lightly tempura-battered and coated in gochujang with creamy swirls of yuzu aioli tempering the spice. It’s practically a meal unto itself.
The roster of entrées is equally enticing: seared scallops plated atop a beet and mango puree and a flat-iron steak sauced with chimichurri and served with local root vegetables. I went with the tantalizing Piranha Roll: albacore wrapped in cucumber and avocado and partnered with ponzu sauce.
Dessert is either Coffee Crème Brûlée or Yuzu Citrus Cheesecake. I chose the latter, a light and fluffy yet nonetheless massive brick of citrusy delectation; I had to take half of it home.
29 E. Cabrillo St., (805) 690-1650; okusantabarbara.com
STELLA MARE’S, $45:
Located in a 19th-century house overlooking the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, Stella Mare’s is arguably the city’s most beautifully atmospheric restaurant. And with stellar service, a fantastic collection of French country cuisine, and an optional $16 wine pairing, the charming bistro just might be the Restaurant Week highlight.
“We wanted to show our French country bistro style — keep it classic,” said Executive Chef Roth Ironside, whose cooking is about as strikingly awesome as his name.
Tough decisions begin with the first course: country pâté served with pickled shallots and crostini as well as a Bibb lettuce salad, with fresh garden herbs and red-onion dressing. I leapt — maybe hopped? — at the chance to order the herb-crusted frog legs, bathed in a provençale white-wine sauce and piled atop a pleasingly briny blend of diced tomatoes and capers. Kermit may never have found the rainbow connection, but I found a lot to like in the meaty limbs of his fallen brothers.
Entrées include Coq au Vin, stewed in red wine with pearl onions and potato batons, and Salmon Almondine, nestled into a bed of purple cauliflower puree and dressed with a sweet carrot vinaigrette. Throwing caution and calories to the wind, I ordered the masterfully prepared Short Ribs Bourguignon. Braised for four hours in a rich cabernet sauce, the flavorful beef is exceptionally tender and well complemented by salty lardons and earthy mushrooms.
Desserts range from flourless chocolate torte to lemon curd cake topped with caramelized mascarpone. A Restaurant Week special is a white chocolate bread pudding, slathered in crème anglaise and laid atop a blueberry compote. I found it to be deliciously comforting and the perfect end to an absolutely perfect meal.
50 Los Patos Wy.; (805) 969-6705; stellamares.com
For a list of participating restaurants and their menus, visit sbrestaurantweeks.com.