To take a brief world tour of modern culinary hotspots, head to the far western edge of Goleta, drive past the Ferraris in the roundabout, relinquish your keys to the valet, and saunter into the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, where recent restaurant changes are now serving Japanese and Latin cuisine. And they didn’t forget the Italians, with expanding options at the popular Bistro; nor the French, whom you can toast while sipping on Veuve Clicquot at a pop-up champagne bar on the bluffs overlooking Haskell’s Beach.
Cultivating such diversity is a strategy for Chef Umit Kaygusuz, a 14-year Ritz-Carlton veteran (Dubai, Singapore, Los Angeles, Marina del Rey) from South Africa who’s managed the entire resort’s culinary offerings for about two and a half years. He’s trying to provide menus that appeal to both tourists and locals.
“Having what is needed in town is something we consider, yet of course we consider having options within the resort to allow our guests to have different dining experiences every night,” said Kaygusuz. “Not only are these good additions to our resort, they are good additions to the local food scene too.”
To properly explore these new menus, I invited the appetite and insight of my friend Cousin D, a chef and restaurant owner whose résumé for this adventure was perfectly primed: We’ve traveled to Cuba and Central America together in search of good times and great meals, and he’s introduced me to a number of Asian dishes, often homemade, over the decades.
Our first stop was the O Bar, whose best seats are on the patio that peers over the Bacara’s cascading hills toward the coast. The resort’s lobby bar debuted less than two years ago as a gastropub, but the new menu is inspired by the whole of Latin America, from Argentina to Baja California, with some Caribbean flare as well, especially in the cocktails.
And that’s where we started, me with the crisp Golden Hour (tequila, “tropical” elixir, club soda served in a clay jarrito) and D with the Rainbow Bridge, a mojito of sorts. To eat, a “mini” tuna tostada whose hefty size was difficult to stuff into our mouths, with salty blasts of salmon roe that resonated with the ocean view. “It’s got good, rounded flavors — the roe gives it umami, and that puree makes it fresh,” said Cousin D, referring to the avocado mousse.
The shrimp empanadas were also sizable, made savory with the Mexican oregano chimichurri, and the bass ceviche didn’t skimp on fish chunks either. Served with thick plantain chips, we could barely finish that app, and we still had a full sushi dinner to come.
But we had room for more drinks, so I went with the Bacara Mezcalita, which was just a tad sweet for my taste, and Cousin D opted for the Hemingway Daiquiri, served up just like we had it at La Floridita in Havana years before. “This is like Cuba all over again,” he confirmed.
Next stop was Veuve’s Golden Hour Champagne Bar, which opens around sunset time. We only had one glass of bubbles each, but we could have kicked it there ’til moonlight, as the fresh breeze dampened those lingering rays of midsummer sunlight.
The dusk theme carried into our main event, San Setto, which translates to “sunset” in Japanese. Occupying the westernmost terrace of Angel Oak, Bacara’s signature steakhouse, San Setto serves a tight menu of rolls, sashimi, and small bites, with raw fish as the star but with a handful of supporting cast members.
Before we got into those, however, we were mesmerized by the cocktails, overseen by a young mixologist named Vida Jaffe, who found herself in charge of developing drinks after very little time behind a bar. “I’m really excited and proud,” she said of drinks like the Ki 24, in which tequila partners with complex layers of elderflower and peach liqueurs, lavender, and Earl Grey tea; and the San Setto, a greyhound riff where grapefruit gin, Cointreau, and yuzu mingle together.
“I just fell in love with creating cocktails,” said Jaffe, a Napa native who’d only recently begun working at the resort before she became a drink designer. “This is all a brand-new experience.”
We’d later try the Nirvana, whose ginger and thicker pear base surrounds spicy tequila, and the Kai, in which Jaffe is trying to rescue the reputation of the Japanese liqueur Midori, using its subtle melon notes to enhance the gin and sparkling sake core. In today’s sprawling galaxy of craft cocktails, these were epiphanies of balance and flavor.
The rounds of sushi, nigiri, and more modern creations operated on a similar plane of classics amped by creativity. A foamy spicy tuna sat atop crispy rice, the uni was über-fresh, the yellowtail tiradito benefited from a zesty lemongrass ponzu. Kaygusuz came out to deliver an off-menu crab fried rice with kimchi and pineapple, and then came the ridiculously rich wagyu roll, whose A5 tartare core was wrapped in tōgarashi-seared A5 and topped with Osetra caviar, nori oil, miso aioli, and 24K gold flakes. “There’s really gold on there,” said Cousin D, as we pondered unctuous, intriguing mouthfuls of raw beef.
San Setto’s Chef Efe Onoglu emerged to discuss a bit of his career, cooking under both José Andrés and Michael Mina in D.C. and in restaurants from Istanbul and Cape Town to Los Angeles, where he was last the chef de cuisine at Katsuya. “I learned to butcher a whole lamb when I was 12,” he recalled of hanging out with his adored grandpa on Crete when he was young, which inspired his move away from bioengineering years ago. “I didn’t like that because I wanted to create something.” He’s certainly succeeding in that at San Setto, where we finished with a dessert of semifreddo, a frozen mousse of sorts that’s basically a Ferrero Rocher bonbon in real time.
Of course, these are not the only dining experiences at the Bacara, which is one of the few full-service resorts in the Santa Barbara area. By my definition, that means that you could stay there for an extended weekend and, thanks to the variety of experiences and eateries offered, never feel the pull to leave. Maybe only the Rosewood Miramar truly clicks that box right now as well.
There’s the aforementioned Angel Oak, solid for steaks and seafood; the Caffè down by the roundabout, where coffee, sandwiches, and quick eats are on offer; the Pool Bar, where frozen and craft cocktails wash down fish tacos, guacamole, and other simple dishes; and the Bistro, a casual spot near the bottom of the resort that must move the most volume due to its nearly all-day hours. The latter recently enlisted Chef Justin Purpura after his Four Seasons career in Maui, Las Vegas, and Boston, and he’s moving that menu toward Italian.
We needed one more cocktail from Jaffe before leaving, so we sat at the Angel Oak bar while the team washed glasses and various graduation parties wrapped up. Rarely does one property offer so much, and while I wouldn’t recommend tackling as much as we did for everyone, it was an epicurean evening that neither Cousin D nor I will forget.
And despite what I said in the beginning, we didn’t need our keys tossed back. We hopped in an Uber home, chatting the entire time about our globe-trotting time on the bluffs of Goleta.
8301 Hollister Ave., Goleta; (805) 968-0100; ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/santa-barbara
Sign up to get Matt Kettmann’s Full Belly Files, which serves up multiple courses of food & drink coverage every Friday, going off-menu from our regularly published content to deliver tasty nuggets of restaurant, recipe, and refreshment wisdom to your inbox.