Montecito may be a blue-chip community, but its main street, Coast Village Road, boasts a surprising number of reasonably priced restaurants.
The real bright spot among these is Acacia, opened about a year ago by noted local caterer Stephen Singleton, who has just given up catering to concentrate on the place. Acacia isn't a great restaurant, but it's fresh and stylish, with an attractive interior (whitewashed wood beams, etched glass dividers, a fruit-themed mural), amiable service, a nice if modest wine list and good food from an appealing menu that changes every day.
In charge of the kitchen is Sharna Gross, Acacia's original consulting chef, who has now returned to cook full-time. A veteran of Stars and Ozone in San Francisco, among other places, Gross seems well-grounded in American cooking both traditional and contemporary, and she uses lots of local ingredients and plenty of spice. Her food is accessible and fun, not intellectually challenging so much as sensually enticing.
Quick-fried calamari and rock shrimp were admirably light and tender one evening, with an ancho chile remoulade that was no sissy stuff. Seared peppered filet of beef with spicy Thai sauce and grilled garlic bread was a wonderful jumble of Asian and Mediterranean flavors, attractively heavy on the garlic, ginger and chiles. Another appetizer, risotto cake (actually more of a risotto block) with braised arugula, radicchio, spinach and fresh goat cheese, was like a smart, savory new take on some ancient Italian country dish.
Angel hair pasta with basil-parsley sauce and tomato fondue was an interesting idea--the pasta tossed in a sort of pesto, then surrounded by a thick, rosy tomato sauce--but the pasta had been cooked into mush. Grilled rosemary chicken breast, on the other hand, was perfect, with a Caribbean-inflected accompaniment of cumin-scented black beans and peppery mango relish. Superlative fried chicken is always on the menu, too--one evening with pureed white beans and potatoes--and a typical fish dish might be grilled salmon and spinach salad beefed up with mushrooms and potatoes.
The dessert menu, seasonal rather than daily, currently includes a simple but sumptuous lemon sponge pudding with blackberries and custard sauce and a straightforward peach pie with vanilla ice cream--modest pleasures, perhaps, but real ones.
I'VE NEVER MET CHEF MARK HUSTON, who, with his wife, Margaret, runs the warm, popular Montecito Cafe adjacent to the Montecito Inn (a celebrated establishment opened by Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in 1928 and said to have inspired the song "There's a Small Hotel"). But I can't help imagining him in his kitchen with a pint-sized angel on one shoulder and a pint-sized devil on the other--like Donald Duck's good and bad consciences in old Disney cartoons. In Huston's case, I imagine the angel whispering in his ear, "Be pure. Trust your ingredients. Don't overdo it." The devil counters, "Aw, don't be a sap! You're a chef! Be creative! Throw some more weird stuff in!"
I heard heavenly choirs when I tasted a recent luncheon special of corn chowder, simple and clean, made of nothing more than sweet corn, some pieces of potato, little flecks of carrot, and cream thinned with chicken stock. Then the devil got his licks in, with a dish described as Black Pepper Fettucini (sic), Scallions, White Mushrooms, Grilled Lamb Sausage. This turned out to be a small platter of gummy noodles embellished with paper-thin sliced mushrooms, three-inch lengths of nearly raw scallion and four vaguely gamy-tasting breakfast-style sausage patties, all sitting in a pond of watery cream sauce. Never mind how it tasted (not very good); it should have been disqualified on structural grounds alone.
I had the same problem at dinner. Angelic: mildly spicy pasillo chiles stuffed with Emmenthaler cheese in fresh tomato sauce; light goat cheese pancakes with gravlax and salmon caviar, and tasty steaks at almost giveaway prices--a filet with mushrooms and cream sauce and a New York with sherry-and-blue-cheese sauce, $12.50 and $13.25 respectively (although the New York has since been discontinued, alas). Diabolical: decent duck-liver pate with a queasy-making garnish of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and avocados in a gorgonzola dressing; good smoked salmon unaccountably sweet-and-soured with mango-and-citrus sauce; broiled whitefish incongruously framed with papaya, tarragon and green peppercorns.
Huston obviously has talent, but he ought to get that devil exorcised.
PALAZZIO IS A SMALL, cheery Italian place opened in February by Steven Sponder of Santa Barbara's creole-Cajun-Caribbean Palace Cafe and one of his former managers there, Ken Boxer. The restaurant's name, says Sponder, is his version of the Italian word for palace ( palazzo ). "I didn't like the way the real word sounded," he says ingenuously, "so I changed it."
One look inside reveals that Palazzio is also apparently the Italian word for A Nice Concept We Can Probably Take Statewide. Sponder reports, in fact, that he is planning to open more Palazzios soon, in locations not yet specified. The decor is simple--hardwood floors, cafe chairs, ceramic platters on the walls. Glass jars with self-service spigots offer unnamed Italian merlot for $2.95 a glass, on the honor system. Every 10 minutes or so, somebody passes by with freshly baked garlic yeast rolls drenched in olive oil and basil. Servings are enormous, with half-portions recommended.
The good news about Palazzio is that the prices are low, the salads aren't bad (there's a delicious one of spinach leaves, toasted pine nuts, fried little strips of prosciutto and gobs of fresh, pleasantly sour goat cheese), and there is delicious homemade gelato.
The bad news is first that Sponder's much-vaunted "team service" doesn't work (we waited 10 minutes for attention one uncrowded lunchtime while three servers gabbed at the door) and second that the pastas are uniformly overcooked and often simply badly conceived--clunky, dull lasagna interleaved with watery eggplant; rigatoni with Italian sausage in a sauce disfigured by a surfeit of rosemary; mushy angel hair noodles laden with quartered Roma tomatoes and whole cooked garlic cloves--sort of like hanging cannonballs on a Christmas tree, a mismatch of figure and adornment. Oh, and about that "homemade" gelato: As I was leaving the restaurant one afternoon, a truck bearing the legend "Southwest Traders Inc., Temecula, Frozen Dessert Specialists" was delivering it to the door.
Acacia, 1212 Coast Village Road, Montecito; (805) 969-8500. Lunch and dinner served daily, breakfast Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $38-$58.
Montecito Cafe, The Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Road, Montecito; (805) 969-3392. Lunch and dinner served daily. Wine and beer. Valet and street parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $29-$46.
Palazzio, 1151 Coast Village Road, Montecito; (805) 969-8565. Dinner served nightly, lunch Monday through Saturday. Wine and beer. Street parking. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only , $18-$48.