RESTAURANTS : TWO FOR THE ROAD : One Best and One Aspiring, Both Restaurants Have Charming Settings and Serious Chefs

The Stonehouse at Montecito's San Ysidro Ranch occupies an old two-story stone building surrounded by handsome guest cottages and flourishing gardens, the whole cradled in a lush, narrow canyon. Inside, the dining room seems elegant and rustic at the same time, with stone walls cloaked in thick gray paint and tables draped with white tablecloths angled over American folk-art prints. Outside, on a homey terrace beneath rust-red awnings, candles flicker like fireflies on the tables. You could eat Pop-Tarts with Stove Top stuffing in surroundings like this, and they would probably taste ambrosial.

That's a long way from what you will eat, of course. The Stonehouse is today almost certainly the best restaurant in all of food-conscious Santa Barbara County.

Chef Gerard Thompson, who took over the kitchen about two years ago, comes from New Jersey by way of Minnesota, Northern California, Upstate New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.--good geographical credentials for a young man who says he wants to "rediscover the great foods of America" in his cooking. Indeed, his menu is scattered with emblematic culinary Americana--johnnycakes, succotash, fried green tomatoes, apple brown Betty and the like--as well as such familiar constituents of the "new American cuisine" as ahi tuna, rock shrimp, lemon grass and smoked garlic.

This is no eclectic mishmash, though. Thompson is only 29, but his cooking is mature. He has obviously thought about his food, tasted it, fine-tuned it. There may be some unexpected juxtapositions, but there are no silly accents, no jarring dissonances. Everything somehow fits together. And nearly everything is irresistible.

Braised duck meat fills Thompson's duck taco, its richness offset by a mildly sour tomatillo salsa. Tortilla soup with avocado and grilled chicken is rich and right, and if the avocado isn't quite ripe and the chicken isn't quite visible on occasion, well, the soup doesn't really need them anyway. Sauteed chanterelles and lobster mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest, in huckleberry vinaigrette, are as good as any wild mushrooms I've had in France. Seared ahi tuna is almost ornately embellished with fragrant jasmine rice, lemon grass and cucumber relish--an exotic and seductive combination of flavors.

The only appetizer I'm not quite sure about is a salmon-filled spring roll with beet vinaigrette. It tastes fine, but the spring roll behaves like the celery stalk in a grade-school osmosis experiment and soon grows disconcertingly damp and red with beet juice.

Thompson's main dishes, appropriately enough, are considerably heartier than his appetizers. Pan-roasted lingcod, an underrated fish, is moistened with an earthy-sharp black-eyed-pea vinaigrette and served with impeccable fried green tomatoes. Perfectly cooked salmon, roasted on a cedar plank and moistened with creamy chive sauce, is anchored by garlic mashed potatoes. A plump, juicy chicken breast, sliced, covers a coarse hash of chicken dark meat and potatoes, with asparagus spears and goat-cheese sauce. An extraordinary "Ancho Pepper-Honey Glazed Lamb Shank with Herbed Cornmeal Johnnycake, Fire Roast Peppers and Onions" (its long-winded official name)--the meat tender with a pleasantly chewy exterior, the accompaniments in deft counterpoint--is all the more extraordinary because it's one of Thompson's "spa" dishes, containing fewer than 500 calories.

I half expected to find the under-500-calorie symbol on one of the desserts as well, an improbably light Napoleon filled with whipped mascarpone and assorted berries. (It wasn't there, alas.) I had no such expectations for the warm peach upside-down cake with ginger-caramel ice cream, about as satisfying a sugary indulgence as I've enjoyed in years.

The service at the Stonehouse is usually very personable and attentive. The wine list is a delight, offering 30 or so wines from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties (about the most interesting wine regions in the country right now) and a good additional selection, almost exclusively American, from other places.

"I'm going to retire here," says Thompson of the San Ysidro. "It's a chef's dream." If he does stay and continues to develop his already considerable skills, the Stonehouse may well end up being one of the best restaurants in the country.

Just north of Montecito, high on a verdant Santa Barbara hillside, the El Encanto Hotel is another group of buildings scattered around attractive grounds (buildings and grounds considerably more modest than the San Ysidro's). It, too, has a serious restaurant, housed partly in an unappetizing dining room, with sickroom-green walls full of dreadful paintings, and partly on a sublime terrace with a spectacular view to the ocean.

There's a new chef at El Encanto, but he turns out to be a familiar one--Guy Leroy, who cooked here in the early '80s before going on to Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe, L.A.'s short-lived Asylum and a number of other places. Leroy says that things were in a sorry state when he returned to the hotel and that he is now "working like a dog to change and turn over everything."

It's probably fair, then, to describe his food as being in transition. There are already many nice things about it, though: At lunchtime, the crab cakes with aioli and a salad of field greens are unusually good. The grilled Norwegian salmon stands up nicely to a surprisingly subtle pineapple-and-mango salsa. Appetizers of basil-cured salmon with caviar, served over roasted creamer potatoes, and a field green salad with baked goat cheese in a pine-nut crust are paradigms of the contemporary California-French style. For dinner, thick saffron-scented pappardelle pasta with very fresh, perfectly cooked shrimp and sea scallops seems gloriously Mediterranean, bright and savory and aromatic.

On the other hand, I just don't understand Leroy's dish of seared swordfish on thick slices of grilled red and yellow tomato, topped with five or six room-temperature baby clams in vinaigrette. The fish itself is fine, as are the clams, but the marriage is a watery mismatch. And both pear and blueberry tarts were pretty grim one evening--gelatinous and soggy. But the textbook-perfect floating island dessert and the homemade ice creams (including one flavored with lavender) are excellent.

The wine list offers about 70 California wines, 20 of them from Santa Barbara County, and a small but decent choice of French bottles. The service, on the other hand, is sort of loopy. No bread came to our table, and a waiter seemed genuinely surprised when we asked for it. At a nearby table, main courses appeared while two diners were still eating their appetizers. "Oh, we haven't finished yet," said one of them nicely. "No problem," replied the waiter. "You can put them on the side." Sorry, but no. In a place of this caliber, you can jolly well serve them at the proper time.

Next week: Three reasonably priced restaurants in exclusive Montecito.

The Stonehouse, San Ysidro Ranch, 900 San Ysidro Lane, Montecito; (805) 969-5046. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily. Full bar. Valet parking . All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $58-$78.

El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas, 1900 Lasuen Road, Santa Barbara; (805) 687-5000. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily. Sunday brunch. Valet parking . All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two , food only, $45-$80.

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