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Square One chef's on-the-coast ingenuity

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Jason Tuley stands in the middle of a sun-drenched farm field on an early Saturday morning in Los Olivos, Calif., holding a fat, dappled squash in one hand and a long, red noodle bean in the other. He tucks the squash under an arm, snaps the sturdy 18-inch-long bean in half and takes a bite. He looks at it askance for a second or two, then says, "That's one of those ones you have to think about for a few days before you cook with it."

It's not often that the chef and co-owner of Square One restaurant in Santa Barbara is stumped for ideas. He's big on ideas. The 33-year-old Santa Barbara native who remembers eating red abalone and thresher shark as a kid has a knack for making the most of an abundance of local ingredients -- spot prawns or rock crab straight from the channel, fresh Purple Glazer garlic or heirloom Lemon Boy tomatoes that have been planted for him by a specialty grower at Stonecrest Farms in Los Olivos.

As much as 80% of the vegetables he uses at the restaurant comes from the farm, 26 acres located about 35 minutes north of Santa Barbara, surrounded by apple and walnut orchards and across the road from a miniature-horse ranch. The rest he gets from farmers markets. "The restaurant is right between the Tuesday market on one side and the Saturday market on the other," he says. "Each season seems better than the last. I could change the menu every day if I wanted."

For practicality's sake, it's more like every week and a half, and it's a rotating roster of Santa Barbara's freshest. Right now it's local white sea bass with white-wine-braised romaine, saffron foam and grilled mussels; whole roasted gold spotted sand bass with a raw-artichoke-and-herb salad; crisp-fried Stonecrest Farms squash blossoms as big as your hand, draped with Iberico-style ham and served with a salsa of tiny yellow tomatillos (they taste like sweet gooseberries) and pickled shishito peppers.

The panko-crusted red abalone he serves with a mousse-like artichoke foam and barigoule -- artichoke hearts braised in a white wine broth -- has a texture almost like creamy calamari and a slightly sweet flavor reminiscent of scallops. For a relleno, he uses Santa Barbara red rock crabs and peppers called corno di toro, an Italian varietal that's long, horn-shaped, earthy-sweet and mild, grown at Stonecrest.

Around the corner and a world away from the mid-afternoon-margarita crowd on newly brick-lined, heavily touristed State Street, Square One is Tuley's oasis, with pale blue and ivory walls, high ceilings, a long travertine bar, tall vases filled with gladioluses and a single Julian Schnabel painting hung by the door.

Tuley completed the culinary program at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, and worked his way around kitchens in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. He was executive chef of Neo, an erstwhile contemporary-American restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco. After returning to Santa Barbara, he helmed the stoves at Stella Mare's and was executive chef at a private club.

A kitchen of his ownTWO years ago, with co-owner and general manager Caitlin Scholle, he opened Square One, tucked away on Cota Street, where shuttle service Bill's Bus sometimes passes to transport inebriated college students from Q's or Sharkee's back to Isla Vista.

In Square One's tiny kitchen, the young chef wearing black Persol glasses preps locally farmed red abalone. Because of overfishing, California's commercial abalone fishery was shut down by the late '90s. (In the '70s, Santa Barbara's fishermen harvested two-thirds of California's abalone catch.)

And though farmed abalone, such as that from the Cultured Abalone outside Santa Barbara, has helped encourage a comeback, abalone still isn't showing up on many restaurant menus. Perhaps that's because it's tricky to prepare, though to watch Tuley handle the shellfish, you'd never know it.

"Growing up, one of my dad's best friends was an abalone diver, and I remember eating it really young," Tuley says. "And I've been cooking with it for the last 10 years. You just have to be careful cooking it. It's really, really easy" to overcook.

Tuley grabs a fillet knife, and the tattoos that cover his arms down to his wrists peek out from the sleeves of his whites. From the refrigerator he takes a live abalone, a meaty gastropod with a thick shell. "By looking at it, you'd think the thing was so tough," he says, "but it can be so delicate."

He sprinkles the creature inside the shell with kosher salt, lets it sit a few minutes, then rubs it clean with a kitchen towel and rinses it off. With a large spoon, he scoops the abalone meat from the shell and cuts off the tough "foot." Using the fillet knife and moving it in a sawing motion, he thinly slices the abalone, then pounds each side of the fillet a couple of times on a wooden board with the studded side of a kitchen mallet. You don't have to pound it a lot, but you have to use enough force that the fillets become limp, he says.

To get a good sear quickly, he likes to use a heavy cast-iron pan, which he heats on high, then turns down to medium before swirling in clarified butter (he doesn't want the pan too hot). "You don't want them to seize up and curl," he says of the fillets. He adds the abalone, breaded with a light coating of panko, cooking each side for only about 20 seconds. "You have to cook them really fast or they will get tough." He seasons each fillet right at the end as he's taking it out of the pan, "almost like you would a French fry," he explains.

He can do what seems like a million things with abalone. It's so versatile, he says, "because it's light and delicate."

He cold-smokes, then lightly grills abalone and serves it with uni (sea urchin roe) and a white-truffle-and-uni emulsion. He has come up with a play on the fish stew cioppino, with abalone, a cipollini and fingerling potato hash, fines herbes salad and tomato broth. And he pairs grilled abalone with bittersweet Italian greens and warm sweet-sour agrodolce that he makes with Cabernet vinegar, grassy Tuscan olive oil and a little chile.

Abalone for ravioliGETTING his hands on some duck eggs from the farmers market, he makes an egg pasta dough for ravioli, and inside each raviolo he places a duck egg yolk. He serves a couple of ravioli alongside a few slices of crispy-tender abalone, dressed with house-cured bacon vinaigrette and thyme blossoms. When you cut into a raviolo, the fresh egg yolk oozes out, making a rich sauce for the abalone.

"You don't want to overpower abalone's delicate flavor," Tuley says. "I was at the farmers market and saw perfect artichokes; they're so fresh right now. Their earthy, subtle flavor goes great with abalone. And it's good with citrus; just a little bit of acid brings out the seafood flavor."

He's no less proficient with Santa Barbara rock crab, the tough-shelled crab from the Santa Barbara Channel. Of the red, brown and yellow rock crab, the red has the sweetest meat -- and the thickest shell. "I always specify red," says Tuley, who gets his crabs from the Santa Barbara Fish Market at the harbor.

Getting all the meat out of the crabs is labor-intensive, he says, "but it's worth it. It's sweet like Dungeness but has a little lighter, looser flake."

He boils the crabs, starting them in cold water "so they don't lose their limbs"; by the time the water comes to a boil, they're done.

Once the crabs are cool, Tuley removes all the meat in a three-step process: First, pull off all the legs; then open the shell of the body over a bowl (you can save the delicious juices to make a broth) and break up the body meat in four pieces; then crack the legs and remove the meat ("a skewer works great"). The process, he says, takes him about two hours for 10 crabs.

He reserves the crab shells (along with those juices) for a fisherman's broth. San Marzano tomatoes are roasted by leaving them overnight in the oven (with just the heat from the pilot light); they come out with concentrated tomato flavor, and almost as sweet as candy.

Once the corno di toro peppers are stuffed with the crab meat, he finishes them with warm fisherman's broth, a little paprika oil and chile threads -- dark red, long filaments that have a sweet-smoky-grassy flavor.

Now he just has to figure out what to do with red noodle beans. You can almost see a light go on over his head. Maybe "steamed buns filled with smoked and lacquered duck with cast-iron-seared garlic and chile noodle beans."

That fat squash from the farm -- a sweet Italian trombone squash -- is already on the menu, served puréed with whole roasted young chicken and citrus-fennel jam.

Tuley also makes all the desserts at the restaurant. On the menu is a peach tart made with peaches from Mud Creek Ranch that he picks up at the farmers market.

To go with it, he grills peaches over a wood fire and uses them to make ice cream.

The grilled peaches give the ice cream a hint of their deep, smoky flavor.

As summer starts to fast-forward into fall and the harvest season progresses, he's looking forward to hearty greens from Stonecrest such as cima di rapa sel fasano, a sort of cross between broccoli rabe and turnip greens, envisioning them with braised pork belly, mustard pearls and crispy garlic.

Or cauliflower, like a pink-and-white varietal called Sicilia violetto -- just in time for lobster season. "Cauliflower and lobster love each other," he says.

"If I don't have to, I won't use anything that I can't get from around here," Tuley says. Which happens to be a lot. "Santa Barbara," he says, "is a great place to be cooking."

betty.hallock@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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