San Ysidro Ranch’s Secret Cellar | Credit: Ivana Milenkovic

The evening began as any fine dining affair should: canapés topped with heaps of caviar, substantial sips of Champagne, and a casual meander through gardens whose meticulously manicured herbs, flowers, and fruits would soon find their way to our plates. Then came an explore-as-much-as-you-want tour of the million-dollar-plus wine cave before settling into our completely private, utterly hidden room to enjoy five courses directly designed to pair with five wines selected just for us.

Welcome to the San Ysidro Ranch’s Secret Cellar, which was officially unveiled earlier this year to make the Montecito resort’s legendarily luxe vibe a little extra-exclusive. “It’s an experience that doesn’t really exist in Montecito or Santa Barbara for the most part, especially at this level,” explained the property’s sommelier Tristan Pitre, who hosted our media group for dinner. “People come to the Ranch for so many different reasons, but if wine is one reason, now you have a dining experience where you’ll be immersed in that.”

Chef Matthew Johnson | Credit: Courtesy

Chef Matthew Johnson’s food earns equal top billing. “He creates dishes that are exclusive to the Secret Cellar,” said Pitre. “They are all dishes that you would not see on the Stonehouse menu.”

Sommelier Tristan Pitre | Credit: Courtesy

Our meal began with citrus-cured steelhead, its fantastically firm cubes awash in roe, turnips, flowers, radishes, and Meyer lemon, paired with a 2016 German riesling from the Pfalz by Von Winning. Next was the spiny lobster, accompanied by braised artichoke, gnocchi, and asparagus in a bouillabaisse sauce, served with Sadie Family’s 2018 “Palladius” white blend from South Africa’s Swartland, the most eye-opening wine of the evening.

A Jerusalem artichoke velouté with black truffle, hazelnut vinaigrette, parmesan emulsion, and crisp sunchokes followed, as a 2008 Premier Cru Volnay by Domaine Douhairet Porcheret brought Burgundy into the picture. Pitre opted for a large-format bottling on that one and opened it earlier in the day to let it breathe, the sort of attention-to-detail service that the Secret Cellar client demands.

Each of the dishes was portioned perfectly, enough to eat that you got the full flavors and reached satisfaction, yet not so much that you felt heavy. That was even true for the Japanese Kobe A5 strip loin, which floated in on a dashi consommé with mustard seeds, king oyster mushrooms, and Napa cabbage. Jonata’s 2005 “El Desafio” incorporated the Santa Ynez Valley’s finest in the right way, providing heft to match the delicate while rich beef bites.

For dessert, the lavender crème brûlée with Meyer lemon foam, almond crisp, and berries by pastry chef Michelle Straub was delicious. But my eyes were more opened yet again by Pitre’s choice of the Braida Brachetto d’Acqui from 2021, a very low-alcohol, lightly spritz red wine that drank like a refreshing adult soda pop.

I wondered how much customers want to guide the wine choices. “Some people like to be heavily involved,” said Pitre, who started working at San Ysidro Ranch about three years ago, soon after the wine cellar was rebuilt in the wake of the January 2018 debris flow. “But more often than not, people don’t want to make the decisions.” Given that he knows the cellar better than anyone, I’d highly suggest letting Pitre take the reins.

A Minnesota native who came to Santa Barbara eight years ago to work at the now-closed Les Marchands before returning to Minneapolis to, among other things, open renowned Chef Gavin Kaysen’s restaurant Demi, Pitre sees this experience as much like a chef’s-counter tasting-menu format. “It’s a bit more of a controlled, multi-course, fine-dining experience where food and wine pairing are the focal point,” said Pitre, who also manages the wine experience at the Ranch’s Stonehouse and Plow & Angel restaurants. “We sell a lot of great food and really great wine in the main dining room, but it’s an à la carte experience, so there’s a little less space for pairing.”

As you may guess, it’s not a bargain night out. If you can rally half a dozen friends — and up to a dozen — the minimum bill should be about $500 per person, though the price can escalate quickly depending on various factors. (You could theoretically eat alone or as a couple, though that minimum price will likely rise.) Even with all the exclusivity, that’s not far out of line with what many top-tier restaurants charge for their most exalted meals. Just across the freeway at Caruso’s, for example, the full-monty chef’s menu plus elite wine pairing is $620. And that doesn’t include a Secret Cellar peek at decades of Petrus — including the 1945, which costs $39,000 — which snuggle up against vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Sine Qua Non.

Since opening this past spring, the Secret Cellar has been steadily serving at least a dinner per week. And though a lot goes into each menu, it doesn’t have to be booked far in advance. “If the room is not occupied and you wanted to come in on that night and have dinner down there, we could accommodate that,” said Pitre. “Being a small property helps keep things really flexible for us.”

He’s proud to finally offer this experience, which was conceived of when the cellar was rebuilt but took years to bring to fruition. “It’s much more intimate than any other splurge experience you’re gonna have,” said Pitre of the attention and privacy the Secret Cellar provides. “I just don’t think you get that anywhere else.”

900 San Ysidro Ln., Montecito; (800) 368-6788;


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