I used to know a guy who would drive up to Santa Barbara just for the afternoon to visit with an old man he respected. I couldn't believe it. In my mind's eye, the Central Coast city seemed much farther than a couple of hours away. Yet it's really not much farther than some unlucky souls' daily commute.
It's the perfect getaway, not punishingly distant, with mostly wonderful weather and a relaxed vibe that can make a day in the city feel like a mini-vacation. There's just enough to do — shopping, Lotusland, lolling on the beach. But not so much that it becomes overwhelming.
Where to eat, though, has always been the question. For a long time, the answer was La Super-Rica. Or possibly the Wine Cask. Then Hollywood's Hungry Cat arrived in Santa Barbara. My list used to end pretty much there. Now it also includes Julienne, a sweet little restaurant on a quiet block just off State Street.
I was smitten the moment the platter of house-made charcuterie came out. This was a serious effort. Everything on the plate with the exception of prosciutto was made in-house. That meant a coarse-textured, country-style pork and liver pâté with a golden raisin compote, a slab of their own mortadella embellished with pistachios, even the saucisson sec and a Tuscan-style finocchiona salami. They actually make much more — including lamb lardo, trotter terrine and potted foie gras served in a little glass jar topped with blackberry gelée — but serve only five or six selections at any given time.
Served with bread and sharp grainy mustard, the charcuterie plate is a wonderful and welcoming way to start a meal at this little jewel of a place. And it's a natural, as chef-owner Justin West and his crew break down whole animals and try to find a use for every bit. That's also why I spotted braised pig tongue for the first time ever on a menu, more delicate than beef tongue, delicious with cream of wheat and shaved fennel.
You can see West and his team at work in the small open kitchen, eager and alert. These guys want to cook and are ready for anybody who comes in the door. If you're one or two, it's fun to take a stool at the counter facing the kitchen and watch the action.
West comes from a restaurant family in Oregon, had his own set of knives at age 12 and met his wife, Emma, when he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. The couple opened Julienne in September 2008, a few weeks before they married. Each had put in a couple of years at other establishments after graduating from culinary school, but the dream was to have their own restaurant. And they got it earlier than most cooking school graduates.
The name is scrawled across the window, inviting guests into the plainly decorated dining room. Service is deft and unobtrusive, with a personal touch from Emma. The menu showcases fine seasonal ingredients, local for the most part. Add simple delicious desserts and a savvy wine list for a very personal restaurant where everything comes together. Sometimes a dish doesn't live up to its potential, but not often.
They give a shout-out to BD's Farm in a salad of bright-tasting lettuce leaves cloaked in a creamy Gorgonzola dressing. Instead of the usual frisee au lardons salad, they've made one of the curly greens with silky roasted shiitake mushrooms, ribbons of bright red pepper and nuggets of crisp bacon. Hand-diced tuna tartare features a quail egg yolk, smoked paprika and the lilt of preserved lemon.
The progressive American bistro also turns out some excellent pasta. I loved the subtlety of house-made fettuccine with ochre chanterelles, green garlic and shallots in a light chanterelle cream sauce. On the heartier side, double-wide noodles come with braised wild boar shoulder and shaved Brussels sprouts in the braising juices.
Main courses are generally well-conceived too. Who wouldn't enjoy braised jidori chicken made with thighs (the better for flavor), shelling beans, Tuscan kale and piquillo pepper? Duck confit sits on a "hash" of diced browned potatoes and asparagus. The skin is crisp and a perfect fried egg sits on top. At $21, it's a bargain.
Braised lamb cheeks are beautifully tender, suffused with Moroccan spices and ideal for a Pinot Noir or a Bourgueil. The chef undercuts the richness of a square of pork belly by pairing it with a butternut squash risotto. But the real star one night is steamed local halibut, snowy white and delicately moist, wearing a savoy cabbage cumberbund and perched on more cabbage, this time a purée.
The occasional dish is slightly dull (duck duo) or doesn't work (artichokes fried in a thick batter that aren't really crispy).
The restaurant doesn't have a big wine list, but it's full of interesting choices at good prices. For example, the sparkling wine by the glass is Tissot's fine Cremant du Jura. There's a Santa Barbara Riesling from Tatomer next to Doug Margerum's Pinot Gris and a dry Furmint from Hungary's Kiralyudvar, even a half-bottle of Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé. And one of my favorite Cabernet Francs, Breton's Bourgueil (also offered by the glass).
Dessert? There are just a few, but that's all that's needed. One is a terrific, eggy crème brûlée with a silken texture and thin burnt-sugar crust. The other two choices are nitro ice cream or nitro sorbet, made by using liquid nitrogen as the freezing agent. By telling diners it's nitro, the message is "this is no culinary backwater." Point taken. Hyper-modern technique, old-fashioned flavors. You get three big scoops of whatever you order, enough for the entire table. Hmm, strawberry sorbet made with farmers market strawberries or cinnamon ice cream made with a vanilla base. Better play it safe (or greedy) and order both.
Now when I find myself in Santa Barbara, I know where to go. My advice: Save Super-Rica for lunch and reserve for dinner at Julienne. You won't be sorry.
Rating: two stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 138 E. Canon Perdido St. (at Santa Barbara Street), Santa Barbara; (805) 845-6488; http://www.restaurantjulienne.com.
Price: Dinner starters, $13 ($5 supplement for house-made charcuterie plate); salads, $11; pasta, $18; game birds, $21; plates from the sea, $22; from the land, $27; desserts, $8. Tasting menus $45, $65 and $85 (for the entire table only).
Details: Open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. and Sunday. Corkage fee, $25. Street or nearby lot parking.