Beyond 'Toad in the Hole'

Written at the bottom of the business card for Sage & Onion in Santa Barbara are the words "an American dream." It's a fitting phrase for chef/owner Steven Giles. He was trained in London by the best, Albert Roux at Le Gavroche, a wonderful, old-fashioned place where lunch can take a leisurely four hours, with guests cosseted and served classic French cuisine complete with marvelously subtle sauces.

Giles first came to the States to be chef at Waterside Inn in Santa Barbara, then he went to Lake Placid Lodge in upstate New York. He returned to Santa Barbara to become director at Wine Cask Catering in Santa Barbara before opening Sage & Onion two years ago.

Like contemporary American cuisine, modern British cuisine draws influences from all over the world. Anyone who pictures "toad in the hole" or pasty bangers, even Yorkshire pudding, when British food is mentioned is sadly misinformed. The Mediterranean and Italian cooking in London is as good as I have had anywhere. At Sage & Onion, Giles is open to those international influences but also sprinkles in a few English frills on his savvy menu. He definitely brings something to the California cuisine party.

Like every Santa Barbara chef worth his toque, Giles relies on the extraordinary quality of produce and seafood from this glorious stretch of California coast, which has a lot in common with the Cote d'Azur. Imagine what it must be like for a cook who endured the long, gray London winters to find strawberries for months on end, corn and beefy tomatoes as early as June and fresh-picked greens all year long. In his menus, Giles rigorously follows the seasons. (Check to see the current menu as well as previous ones.)

Savory Stilton souffle is one of his signature dishes. The individual souffle rises tall and proud, its texture cloud-like, though one could wish it tastes just a bit more of Stilton, and that the accompanying shallot marmalade is less sharp. There's always a foie gras dish on the appetizer list, too. In spring, it was seared and served with a tart rhubarb jus and a tender polenta. In summer, it's a chilled terrine, though two silver-dollar-sized rounds perched on a single piece of toast seems a bit stingy. I can't help comparing the portion with the two heroic slabs that are served at the famous Paris bistro L'Amis Louis. Like caviar, you can never have enough foie gras.

Giles' soups don't resemble the usual dull vegetable purees many restaurateurs feel they need to offer. Spring brought an asparagus soup with the texture of velvet, garnished with sauteed morels that seemed to soak up butter in every crevice. Summer's silky corn soup is poured from a silver coffeepot over a fluffy sauteed crab cake. Giles ventures into fusion territory with a coconut, lemon grass and ginger broth ornamented with crab and jicama pot stickers. The effect is a delicate filigree of flavors, as reticent as Thai cooking was in this country 20 years ago.

When perch is offered as a special one night, I have to order it because the flat fish hardly ever shows up on local menus. The flavor is wonderful, but the filet is a touch greasy, and the vegetables that come with it are an odd combination of cactus, sugar snap peas and shiitake mushrooms. Hand-harvested seared sea scallops, on the other hand, are terrific--absolutely fresh, singing with sweetness and the taste of the ocean. Presented with Parmesan grits and braised mustard greens, they're sauced in a California classic: Chardonnay. Could be Chardonnay sauce is ripe for a comeback.

Even humble chicken does a star turn, roasted with sweet, fragrant Meyer lemon and supported by simple grilled asparagus, a buttery potato puree and a fine gravy. Giles' training at Le Gavroche comes to the fore in his sauces, which are well balanced, supple in texture and rarely too reduced. He's going for a different model from that of many California chefs, who insist on having as much power and punch in their sauces as they do in their Cabernets.

Occasionally his dishes miss, such as the roasted duck breast with a cloying tower of roasted sweet potato and apple, or the mushy lobster and orzo salad wrapped in smoked salmon.

The service is pleasant. Everyone from waiter to server has a professional attitude. They're never intrusive, but they always seem to be right there when you need something. The wine service is excellent, too. Glasses are never filled too high, and waiters don't drive guests crazy by constantly topping up glasses, the faster to empty the bottle.

It comes as no surprise that the souffle theme continues with desserts. Of the ones I tried, strawberry, loquat and Champagne souffle is a favorite. Light and airy, with a faintly fruity flavor, it comes with a guava sorbet. An individual pecan caramel tart tastes as if it's baked at that moment, all warm nuttiness and flaky crust with none of the heaviness of pecan pie. Instead of the sweet coconut whipped cream, though, what it really needs is something cool, perhaps vanilla ice cream. Rhubarb tart is less successful, only because the pastry is tough, making it difficult to cut with a fork.

The dining room is a roomy space with high ceilings and light-filled windows. The decor is idiosyncratic and personal, not excessively formal. The walls, painted a dusty green and yellow Martha would approve of, are hung with two paintings, one of sage leaves, the other a stylized onion. Just inside the entrance is an overstuffed leather sofa, should you have to wait for your table.

A reader once called to berate me for not writing about more British restaurants. "It's the mother country, after all," he complained. "And all we hear about is California, French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican restaurants, etcetera." Well, if he's still reading, here's one to balance the record.

At Sage & Onion, when you walk in, you can see Giles and his young crew at work in the kitchen. Each of their names is listed at the bottom of the menu, a democratic touch very much in the American spirit from someone who's living the American dream.

Sage & Onion

34 E. Ortega St.

Santa Barbara

(805) 963-1012

Cuisine: Contemporary American with an English twist

Rating: **

AMBIENCE: Airy contemporary restaurant with Roman blinds, wide-set tables and comfortable laid-back atmosphere. SERVICE: Warm and professional. BEST DISHES: Sweet corn soup, Stilton souffle, seared foie gras, sauteed morel mushrooms, roasted chicken, hand-harvested scallops, dessert souffles. Appetizers, $8 to $16. Main courses, $22 to $30. Corkage, $15. WINE PICKS: 1999 Ojai Chardonnay "Bien Nacido," Central Coast; 1998 Hitching Post Pinot Noir "Julia's and River Bench," Central Coast. FACTS: Dinner daily. Parking on street or in lot. 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.

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