Surfing Cows, Santa Barbara syrah, and a juicy tomahawk steak — that’s what my “return to normalcy” tasted like. Of course, we aren’t quite there yet, and no one knows what “the new normal” will be. But that cocktail, wine, and hunk of meat are at least what I’ll remember about eating indoors at a restaurant — with other people nearby! — for the first time in a very long time.
The setting was Solvang’s Sear Steakhouse, one of the many Santa Ynez Valley restaurants that have opened, or are about to open, amid the pandemic. It’s a partnership between two of the region’s more formidable hospitality forces: Alberto Battaglini, the Verona, Italy-raised bartender who exponentially elevated the valley’s craft cocktail game when he helped open S.Y. Kitchen in 2012; and Demetri “Jimmy” Loizides, a restaurateur and chef who modeled his three-acre farm in the style of his parents’ village in Cyprus and used those harvests to power K’Syrah Catering & Events for years. (He and his wife, Karen Loizides, also now own the legendary Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, as well as three Greek restaurants in Southern California.)
When the pandemic decimated the catering industry, Loizides approached Battaglini with the idea of turning K’Syrah’s event space on Fourth Place near Copenhagen Drive into a classic steakhouse. “The idea is super valid — this meets all the needs of the valley, with the feeling of a steakhouse but still a little ranch-y,” said Battaglini. “We sat down, laid a plan down, and started working on it.”
It wasn’t Battaglini’s first time developing a new concept. Almost three years ago, he opened Pony Espresso, which serves a range of coffee drinks as well as simple breakfast, lunch, smoothies, and gelato in Santa Ynez. That was his breakout move after helping to run S.Y. Kitchen for more than six years.
“I just wanted to do something on my own wings,” explained Battaglini, who was actually first schooled as a chef. “I never liked it,” he said of those early kitchen days in Italy. “So I jumped in front of the bar.” Part of the early wave of bartenders who brought a culinary mindset to cocktails, Battaglini spent nine years in London and then time in Mexico and Spain before coming to Toscana in Los Angeles, which is owned by the family behind S.Y. Kitchen.
Sear’s core concepts are de rigueur in today’s restaurant world: sustainable ingredients, as regional as possible, full-throttle farm-to-table — although their produce comes primarily from just two properties: the Loizides’ acreage and Roblar Farm, both very nearby. Seafood is also a prominent option, and Battaglini expects that the daily specials options will one day rival the size of the regular menu. “We have the classic part of the menu because it’s a steakhouse format,” said Battaglini. “Then you have these modern twists, which are vegetable-forward. We’re just tweaking it a little bit with modern ingredients and modern tools.”
That ethos extends to the drinks, which depend on farm-raised ingredients, such as the bell peppers that were in both the Surfing Cow — a gin- and Aperol-based ode to the cattle ranching tradition of Santa Rosa Island — and the Barbacoa, a mezcal cocktail whose smoke is further balanced by jalapeño and cilantro. “I wanted to push the bar a little above the situation in Solvang,” said Battaglini of the drinks he developed, which include a line of martinis that are shaken tableside, such as the Irish Gunpowder gin version my friend Señor M. ordered. Battaglini hopes the bar will be a regular haunt for neighbors, explaining, “We want to be a focal point for locals to come by after COVID and enjoy their life.”
Working the grill is Erik Dandee, a Pacific Northwest native whose nearly 20 years of experience extends from family-owned steakhouses like Sear to gigs in Palm Springs at the Wolfgang Puck Kitchen & Bar and Birba inside the Alcazar Hotel. Trying to survive the pandemic, he’d been applying to an endless run of restaurants when Sear called. “I’ve always worked at steakhouses, and I always ended up on a grill,” said Dandee, who’s excited to once again serve prime rib on Sundays.
He told us as much as we finished what we could of our expertly charred, 32-ounce tomahawk, which came out alongside our crispy Brussels sprouts and fried cauliflower, enhanced with a roasted tomato choka sauce. We’d started off with the beet and goat cheese salad, recommended for its crunchy-salty-tangy blend by our server Kara Teel, another wine country hospitality veteran. We followed drinks with the Barieau syrah from the surrounding Los Olivos District, made by Bingo Wathen. The son of Foxen cofounder Billy Wathen, Bingo happened to be working at the bar that night, so he came over to personally thank us for the order.
The only minor gripe was that our two-top was too little table for the feast we ordered, but by the time Battaglini was explaining the ins and outs of amaro, we didn’t care. I opted for the Nonino, a bitter liqueur made with saffron, while Señor M. reconnected with his Argentinian days by ordering the Branca Menta, a minty cousin of Fernet Branca, which is beloved down there. Both helped soak up the butter cake we ordered, a globby treat that’s not too impressive to look at but provided a warm, rich, and comforting bite. “It’s like a warm shortbread cookie,” said Señor M.
When I called Battaglini on the phone later, I was curious whether this steakhouse format is indeed a unique American idea, as we seem to think. From his experience in Italy, London, and elsewhere, Battaglini confirmed that, while plenty of meat is served at restaurants around the world, this steak-as-star, martini-as-mandatory appears to be our invention. “This is really an American concept,” he said.
We also talked briefly about staffing, which is a real struggle for restaurants emerging out of the pandemic. So far, Battaglini seems pleased with the team he’s assembled. “We have a crew of pirates, and we are pushing it through every day,” he explained. “That’s it!”
478 4th Pl., Solvang; (805) 245-9564; searsteakhouse.com