Pandemic, meet unstoppable Santa Barbara business force. Brandon Ristaino and Misty Orman, the couple behind The Good Lion, Test Pilot, and Shaker Mill, have teamed up with Jesse Gaddy and Julian Martinez, partners behind Barbareño and Cubaneo, to open a new wine bar. Say hello to Venus in Furs on East Cota Street, in what was most recently The Middle Child.
Yes, the new spot’s name is a huge Velvet Underground shout-out, minus most of the shocking song’s S&M references. Ristaino compares the band’s punk rock energy “to young, rebellious, hippie guys and girls in France in the late 1960s, early 1970s,” and “the rad bars that were popping up in Paris then through the 1980s.” It’s that kind of neighborhood natural wine bar Venus in Furs aims to emulate, a spot that in the City of Lights might be called a cave à vin.
Knowing how the term natural wine has grown to mean everything and nothing (thanks, marketers!), Ristaino admitted, “I would hesitate to use the word natural, but we serve non-interventionist, biodynamic wines. The phrase I like is ‘climate-sensitive farming’ — for the most part, nothing added, nothing removed. It’s fun wine that’s got integrity.”
They hired Lenka Davis, longtime somm at Barbareño, to help build the list. “She’s great and we love her and her work,” Ristaino says. “She did the list and training. While she’s living in Sonoma, she comes down once a month.”
The unique list is broken into sections like Electric Whites (subtitled “acid speaks louder than words”) and Pitch-Black Reds (subtitled “tbh, Adam Driver is only slightly more brooding”). Ristaino insists the goal is to be “approachable, fun, and affordable,” claiming 50 percent of the wine is $25 to $44 bottle and pointing to 18 by-the-glass options. The list will be ever-changing, too, as they’re rarely stocking up more than a couple of cases of that Roark chenin blanc or Scholium Project cinsault, for example.
Photos by Daniel Dreifuss
But wine is just one attraction. “We are huge fans of chef Julian [Martinez], and it’s an honor to collaborate with him,” explained Ristaino. The kitchen’s goal, he says, is to celebrate the bounty of the earth from the Santa Barbara Channel to the Santa Ynez Valley. The menu is driven by vegetables and seafood, said Orman, explaining, “At Barbareño, the menu is so meat-centric, so Julian was happy to go in this direction here.” Think a high summer cucumber gazpacho with a home-baked basil seed lavosh supporting a delicious dice of tomatoes and whey-poached spot prawns. Or, for the carnivorous, a luxuriously spiced lamb belly with rosemary corn pudding, chimichurri, and shishitos.
The Velvets’ kink does rise to the surface when you spy the cocktail list. It’s extra twisted fun, given that not one of the drinks, from a Kiss the Boot to The Gentle Whip, will smack you with lots of alcohol — remember, there’s no hard liquor license. “It’s a way to make really interesting cocktails, with just a beer and wine license — these are sessionable,” Ristaino explained. “I’m getting older, and now I have vicious hangovers after three Manhattans.”
Much kinder on your tomorrow is that aptly named Gentle Whip, an amaro sour with “lots of bitter Italian stuff,” according to the menu. The “lots” are five types of vermouth, bitters, and amaros, but if Ristaino told me which, John Cale would have to beat me to death with his viola bow. (Go listen to the song if that doesn’t make sense.)
Right now, patrons can only sit outside in the Cota Street parklet or in the charming rear patio space, which reminds Orman of “sitting in a Brooklyn or New Orleans backyard.” But the inside is something special, too. Dramatic stripes of black and white highlighted by red and green line the arched ceiling. That ceiling will soon feature fancy Italian chandeliers — so Italian they originally arrived wired for 220 volts. And the also-delayed tables, both inside and out, will be etched with rock lyrics for even more of an edge.
“This is 12 new jobs for the city; that means the team grows from 33 to 45,” said Ristaino of Good Lion Hospitality’s employment impact. “Plus, we’re selling wines that are good for Mother Earth and promoting local food purveyors — it’s a win-win.”
Ristaino and Orman have had only five days off since February 29, but they’re not complaining or resting. Indeed, they’ve got another project afoot in Ventura, the Bank of Italy Cocktail Trust, that they hope to open this fall.18 E. Cota St.; venusinfurswine.com
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