A die-hard foodie since the early 1980s, I’ve never had a problem with driving long distances to indulge in exemplary cuisine. Despite current gas prices I still don’t mind taking a road trip. While some people tell me that it’s crazy, that’s only because they don’t share my passion for great dining experiences. For those of you who do, I’m excited about sharing news of my favorite new eateries in northern Santa Barbara wine country in the tiny hamlets of Los Alamos and Los Olivos. Like Paso, these little towns have blossomed thanks to the fact so many awesome wineries have tasting rooms in town or within a short drive to the wine country roads. And you know who follows great wineries: Great chefs who are inspired by our excellent wineries, and passionate about creating wine country cuisine. That’s what you’ll find in these extraordinary restaurants.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BRIGHT AND AIRY : Bell St. Farm offers nice, open, family-style dining inside and a large patio in the back for devouring their delicious food.
My first visit to Bell St. Farm in Los Alamos had me impressed. I loved the old-fashioned general store ambiance, reminiscent of the Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley. Granted, it’s not nearly as big but Bell St. Farm is part gourmet deli, part gourmet retailer, with displays of high-quality jams, spices, and cookbooks available for purchase. Co-owner and manager Jamie Gluck, the amiable man in the 10-gallon cowboy hat, carries a great selection of local wines at retail prices, and sells wine by the glass. Unlike Oakville Grocery, you can order from the menu of farm-fresh daily specials and sit at tables inside or out back on the patio to enjoy your meal. There are many small tables for dining, but I prefer the long community table where you will surely meet some interesting new people.
Although the ambiance is kicked back, Bell St. Farm’s upscale cuisine drives me back, hungry for more. My husband Dan and I love sharing plates, so we indulge in multiple dishes to try. Our favorite is their Huntsinger free-range chicken, available by the half or whole. Roasted on the rotisserie, it’s a small bird that’s perfectly golden, succulent, and delicious. I prefer the whole chicken so there are leftovers to take home. It’s served with a side of rosemary-hummus, and there’s a nice selection of deli salads to choose from to complete the meal. Their delicious chicken is also available in a large dinner salad, or on multi-grain bread with a tamarind-curry mayo, celery, currants, apples, and butterleaf lettuce.
- CRISPY SKIN : The rotisserie in the kitchen is used not only for perfectly roasted chickens, but also for pork roasts.
The rotisserie pork sandwich on ciabatta is another favorite. Made up of hot pork belly-wrapped shoulder, it’s dressed with mayo, apple and jicama slaw, and pickled onions. The olive mix with lemon zest and herbs is wonderful. Charcuterie and cheese plates, perfect with wine here, can be ordered to go to enjoy at a winery’s picnic area. Freshly baked desserts include cookies, pecan bars with dark chocolate, and Doc Burnstein’s ice cream du jour. This quaint eatery is best for lunch or late-afternoon snacks with wine since they close at 6 p.m.
Should you arrive too late, Full of Life Flatbread is a great choice for dinner. There, you’ll find amazing farm-fresh foods, grown or raised within a 300-mile radius of the restaurant. Everything is made from scratch by chef Brian Collins in such wonderful dishes as Santa Barbara spiny lobster with fried green tomatoes and pasilla bajio, or flatbread generously topped with Finley Farms heirloom tomatoes, Roots Farm basil, and Angelo & Franco mozzarella. The wine list offers only Santa Barbara County wines, but you’ll find an excellent selection.
- JUICY : Thick slabs of bright red, fresh tomatoes top luscious slices of roast beef.
Another great stop is Babi’s Tasting Room, which features Casa Dumetz Wines by winemaker Sonja Magdevski who lives in Malibu with film star Emilio Estevez. They planted a Pinot Noir vineyard in Malibu, which, admirably, they farm themselves. You’ll usually find the charismatic Magdevski in the tasting room, where she makes everyone walking in feel like part of her family of friends. Friday nights, she features local guest speakers. We happened to hear a veterinarian who specialized in horses and gave an interesting lecture. We sipped on Casa Dumetz Rose available by the glass or bottle—as are her other wines. Our hostess also provided complimentary cheese plates overflowing with feta, cheddar, comté, and crackers to enjoy with her wines. Last week she featured a local musician, Jesse Passas.
Just 10 miles farther south, in Los Olivos, you’ll find another of my favorite eateries: Sides Hardware & Shoes, a Brothers’ Restaurant. Matt and Jeff Nichols formerly ran the restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern until their lease ran out. Now they’re on the other side of the block (formerly Patrick’s Side Street Café), which they named for the original business built there, it’s a bit ironic. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the chefs’ menus are small but devoted to the highest-quality foods. From the Nichols brothers, that means farm fresh ingredients—from the herbs to seasonal fruits, from free-range meats to tender-crumbed, herbed hamburger buns freshly baked in their kitchen just before opening.
- MEAT AND CHEESE : Cutting boards covered in salami, cheese, and olives are one option for a light lunch.
I loved the Brothers burger, a Kobe beef hamburger from Snake River, Idaho, with cheddar, shredded lettuce, pickles, and the Brothers’ sauce (an improved 1,000 island). The next time I tried the Kobe beef burger with thick slab bacon, caramelized shallots, cheddar, and aioli on an herbed focaccia bun. They are both outstanding—and what’s a burger without their hot and crisp fries?
On another visit, the chicken breast served over lemon risotto was perfect. The succulent chicken breast had an irresistible crispy skin (which I normally won’t eat) and the most delicious risotto I have tasted in years. Each visit, I’ve eaten so much of the main course, there was no room for dessert. Looks like I need another road trip!
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at firstname.lastname@example.org.