Sunday, November 30, 2008

Elements Restaurant and Bar

If your plans include a trip to Santa Barbara, a visit to Elements is a necessity. A personal friend who used to live in Santa Barbara suggested we try this restaurant, and we have yet to thank him sufficiently. Our only regret is that it is not a local restaurant for us. This restaurant delivers California Cuisine at it's best in a casual, comfortable atmosphere that begs one to linger. We are actually planning our next visit south around being able to go back for lunch.

As you can see in the above photos, the food is beautifully plated and had great eye appeal. Our first appetizer was a spicy tuna tartar with house made taro chips. The next photo shows a beef carpaccio with mandarin orange, caper berries, Dijon mustard and parmigiano cheese. It was delicate and refreshing, but also very rich in taste.

The gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce was a classic combination that worked beautifully with the red wine braised short rib that was fork tender. For me the highlight of the meal was a side of Brie mashed potatoes that were hidden under the mound of baby carrots, string beans, and braised apricots, prunes and currants that made up the condiment for what had to be the thickest center cut pork chop I have ever seen. The potatoes were buttery with an earthiness that could only be imparted by the cheese. The brie itself was more evident in the aftertaste. The pork chop was very tender and if I had been eating beef, it would most certainly be the fillet mignon cut. Delicious, but slightly undercooked.

The meal was filling, but dessert was ordered despite that, if only to see how it was plated. Another success both aesthetically and in taste. Lemon Mascarpone cheesecake with Macadamia crust and meringue deserves a place on every menu in the country!

129 East Anapamu St
Santa Barbara CA 93101

Saturday, November 29, 2008

La Super Rica

After dining at two Mexican restaurants that we found on our own in Santa Barbara, it was time to elicit the help of locals, so when I found myself talking to two elderly men at a local coffee shop I decided to see what they thought. When the first said La Super Rica, the second nodded his head with enthusiasm and kept saying Izzy's was the best. That was enough recommendation for me. The next day we were off and running to Izzy's when we discovered La Super Rica at the same address. It was well worth the trouble and name confusion to find it. Isidoro Gonzales is the owner and dedicated counter man who has served presidents and professional chefs (Ronald Regan and Julia Child).

Even though the kitchen was small and the lines long, everything moved along at a fast clip and it was heartwarming to see that he tortillas were being hand made. Though thin from the use of a tortilla press, they were delicious all the same, although I do prefer a thicker version.

As I wondered how a restaurant could afford to offer prices this low, I realized that these were the bait and the profit came with the volume of food sold. Judging by the number of people who went in before us and those waiting in line as we left, there were no doubts that this Santa Barbara institution would remain open for years to come; it's been open thirty years already. (It is interesting to note that La Super Rica made it to the "Saveur 100" list of readers' favorites in 2009. Since the list included things other than just restaurants, I'd say #62 was was a reasonably high status to achieve.)

Each taco order, whether it was chicken, carne asada or grilled pork came with two corn tortillas and enough filling to make two adequate tacos. Pico de gallo as well as red and green salsa were available on the side. These were a real bargain.

Does the above photo look like a $10 lunch to you? Me neither! People either love or hate this restaurant, but what's not to love at these prices?
We spent a few minutes splitting the fillings among the tortillas and then chowed down. The meats with the Pico de gallo and salsa were classic, but the richest and most unusual selection we made was the Raja, composed of roasted pasilla peppers with grilled onions and cheese. Truly a wonderful and unexpected treat. I'm always willing to try something new and this was a great find, as I have never eaten anything like it before. I had a chance to speak with the owner and he said that he was from Jalisco state, but the cooking was something he learned in Mexico City. This was the authentic Mexican food we'd been looking for.

I know that guacamole is a starter, but we couldn't resist adding it to the carne asada and grilled pork tacos for an added depth of flavor. It would have been perfect on its own, but we didn't eat it that way. We are planning our next trip south very carefully, so we can eat again at La Super Rica. Even thin tortillas won't keep us away. Be forewarned, it's closed on Wednesdays and if you want to skip the long lines, get there by 11:45 a.m.

622 North Milpas Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93103-3032
(805) 963-4940

Friday, November 28, 2008

Joe's Cafe of Santa Barbara

Joe's Cafe is the kind of mom and pop place that offers diners the predictable in American fare. Comfort food, to many people, is still good food, and with the old time atmosphere, this place appeals to many people. We did not order enough to make this a fair evaluation, but I can say the menu is broad enough to satisfy many people and the service was very good.

This may have seemed odd to most diners, bread served with a cooked tomato salsa, but it so happens my grandmother used to make a cooked salsa that she used primarily on meat loaf, that we often ate with bread. Surprisingly, this in itself was a comfort food for me and helped to define the restaurant. My grandmother's addition of bell peppers would have enhanced Joe's salsa. The Cesar salad was predictable and not the best, but passable.

Speaking of meatloaf, it was moist but lacked much flavor. I was initially annoyed that it came layered over toast (removed by me prior to this photo) but learned when the bill arrived, that the waitress had given me the meatloaf sandwich instead of the meatloaf dinner. I owed her a debt of gratitude, because the amount of meatloaf was plentiful and I paid 30% less for the sandwich. the gravy reminded me of Bisto, a British powdered product that when mixed with water created a brown gravy of questionable taste. This was not home made gravy and the salsa would have worked better.

536 State Street
Santa Barbara CA 93101-1602
(805) 966-4638

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sand Bar in Santa Barbara

If you're into bar scenes you could do worse than Sand Bar in the heart of the Santa Barbara downtown on State Street. We tried it at an odd hour and missed most of the crowd, but that was just fine with us. The food is competent, the delivery fast and we enjoyed ourselves. That is enough to recommend it in many cases, but this was not the best Mexican food that Santa Barbara has to offer although much more reasonably priced than El Paseo and more to our liking. Sand Bar offers an Americanized version of Mexican food with all the usual suspects on its menu fit for gringo tastes.

First of all, the guacamole was made with rich, well ripened avocados that needed little more than some onions and a nice dollop of tomato salsa to taste very good. The flautas were well crisped and the chicken was moist, not stringy. thumbs up for the first courses.

The chicken Enchiladas Verde could have used a bit more tomatillo sauce on the plate for color contrast as well as taste. They receded into the background and were overpowered by the sides. Still for under $9 they were a bargain lunch. The pork and fish tacos were decidedly better and more interesting visually.

To really get a good sense of them I ordered one each of the soft tacos, the Carnitas, the Carne Asada and the fish taco made of Mahi. Each soft taco had its own condiments and its own identity. All were very good and priced between $3.75 and $4.75. They added up to a greater price than the combination plate, but were more substantial than one taco with a side of bland rice and beans.

514 State Street
Santa Barbara CA 93101-1602
(805) 966-1388

Sunday, November 23, 2008

El Paseo Restaurant

Lovely to look at, but no place for a Mexican dinner. Being enthralled by the Spanish architecture and charmingly serene city of Santa Barbara, we decided to continue the historic California mood by going to eat at a highly polished Mexican restaurant in the El Paseo shopping Center on State Street. The interior was reminiscent of a hacienda patio, a very large hacienda at that, with a three tiered fountain and exterior stairs leading to the balcony. If you were to dine there during the day, the glass ceiling opens to allow more than the illusion of a patio with full sun and warm breezes. That alone would be worth a return trip, but for no more than drinks and appetizers.
The meal started well enough with a classic chicken taquito appetizer covered in the requisite guacamole; it was nice but lacked the strong, rich flavor of ripe avocado. The chicken was not stringy, but neither was it plentiful. On the plus side, it was a generous serving of 4 taquitos rather than the standard 2 served by most restaurants. Good but not an elevated, above normal taste. With high end restaurant prices I expected much more.

Having a fondness for Mexican Mole sauces, I chose the Chicken Mole dinner that came with rice and beans. If there were ala carte options, my preference would have been to opt out of the starches, but since they came with the chicken I tried them. Once again, nothing out of the ordinary and that is precisely why I usually don't order them. The Mole sauce itself was lighter than some but good and the sprinkling of pumpkin and sesame seeds was a much appreciated textural element that added well to the taste. The chicken itself was not cooked on the bone, lacked any complexity of taste and was a bit overcooked.

The other entree at our table looked fantastic on paper, but did not live up to its promise. It was definitely an enchilada plate and the meat filling was indeed filet Mignon, but the two did not go together well. The delicacy of the filet was completely lost in the enchilada sauce. For $26 it should have been more than it was.
El Paseo Restaurant
813 Anacapa St
Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 962-6050
Hours: Tue-Thu 4pm-10pm
Fri-Sat 11:30am-10:30pm
Sun 10:30am-9pm

Pastuccio's in Santa Barbara

Nice dining room, pleasant ambiance, but please do not expect a great meal in this restaurant. My intention for this blog was to never even bother with bad restaurants, but this meal was inedible and I feel obliged to put an orange cone and flashing warning lights in front of this pot hole, before another accident occurs. In Italian the word pasticcio means "mess". I believe the name of this restaurant was no accident, just a matter of misspelling.

My dining companion was happy with his Cesar salad, but as long as it has parmigiano, romaine lettuce, croutons and a Cesar dressing, it will pass muster. Not being particularly hungry, he ordered an appetizer and called it a night. The baked brie and garlic with pear and walnuts was decent enough to be satisfying.

The car wreck started when I ordered the pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage sauce. Having had squash tortellini many times in Italy, I had a reasonable expectation as to what would be arriving at the table. Pumpkin, when roasted could be similar to the deep orange squash I had experienced eating in this classic Italian dish. Since I use Butternut squash when replicating this recipe, it was going to be nice to compare the pumpkin taste and texture to the butternut. That didn't happen. Pastuccio's uses canned and spiced pumpkin pie filling. Gag me with a spoon, or one of these ravioli. They arrived barely warm, not hot, the sage was burnt, and the pumpkin pie spices were inappropriate as well as intolerable.