Picturesquely situated a stone's throw from the Andre Clark Bird Refuge, Michael's Waterside has been known since 1984 as the place to go in Santa Barbara for a truly distinctive dinner experience or an excellent Sunday brunch. In a Victorian cottage built in 1872, the ambience is traditional and luxurious. And the food, while impeccably grounded in classic French technique, is often given to flights of singular and surprising fancy by the chef and proprietor, Michael Hutchings.
Recently, Hutchings decided to split his restaurant into two separate identities. While keeping his traditional, upscale dining room in the main building, he has opened a bistro in the greenhouse addition to the restaurant. Here, he offers a more casual eating experience, and the prices are less than half of those in the restaurant.
It's hardly fair to show up to review a place on opening day, but I couldn't resist checking out the Bistro, because it happened to be my birthday too. Amazingly, every other table was celebrating a birthday that night, including one party of 15 that had hired a marvelously mournful mariachi trio. The music reflected the poignant sentimentality of the final hours of our special day.
Even more surprisingly, the place was operating without a glitch.
It's an appealing setting. With its high, glass ceiling, charming lattice and low brick walls, it is reminiscent of an Edwardian conservatory. The careful ministrations of the service make you feel as pampered as an orchid.
Fresh oysters arrived in elegant simplicity on a bed of ice, with a pitcher of vinegar sauce on the side. Baked onion soup was delicately flavored with sherry and relied (refreshingly) on the sweetness of the onions rather than salt for its effect.
Some of the best things about Hutchings' cooking are the intense sauces, using no cream, which he makes from reducing the juices of the meats and infusing them with brilliant seasoning. Tender Provencal beef stew ($7.75) offered tastes of orange peel and bacon. Turkey sausage, spiked with herbs, came with a teriyaki-flavored sauce and delicious sliced potatoes. I especially liked a lemony pasta textured with olives, succulent fingers of ham and an herb that must have been lemon grass.
With all the satisfaction to be had at the Bistro, and the modesty of the prices, why even think of going to the restaurant?
Because this is where you can get the kind of meal that lingers in your memory with particular relish.
Take the Gruyere cheese souffle. It is as light as whipped cream and as subtle as a haiku. Or the mussel soup in a light cream broth with fresh chopped chives. It could be described as mussel liqueur.
Butternut squash gnocchi , silkier than potato gnocchi , enlivened by fresh sage and, improbably, macadamia nuts, offered a hint of Thanksgiving feasting. I found myself making secret plans to come back all by myself just to have this exquisite dish again.
Tender pieces of New Zealand venison ($19.95) (unlike anything ever raised in California) came in a sauce with whole cranberries-- also an evocative seasonal touch.
Another splendid dish consisted of fat scallops, fried in lavish crisps resembling shredded coconut and perched on a bed of pureed sweet peas.
As with all the entrees, perfectly cooked sea bass (with a slightly caramel-flavored sauce) came with a medley of baby vegetables, including zucchini as tiny as marbles and Parmesan-kissed pasta in the shape of rice.
The wine list, like the menu, was both discerning and interesting, but not overpowering. The desserts certainly maintain the high standards. Tarte tatin, with its fabulous combination of caramelized puff pastry and cooked apples, is not to be missed. Order it with the entrees as it takes 30 minutes to bake.
Shortcake (credited to Hutchings' mother) is also excellent. Hutchings seems to pull out the essence of the fruit in his dessert sauces, the same way he does with his meats.
In an effort to find at least one thing to criticize, I'd have to say the fresh pineapple sorbet was too sweet. I'll be going back as soon as possible to see if this was the fault of the chef or the fruit.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Michael's Waterside Restaurant and Bistro, 50 Los Patos Way, Santa Barbara. Call 969-0307. Dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. All credit cards except Discover. Restaurant, dinner for two, food only, $60 to $80. Bistro, dinner for two, food only, $30 to $44.