Santa Barbara is about 2 hour north drive along the 101 from Los Angeles. It is a beautiful city that has been called the “American Riviera” and with temperatures in the high 70s during July, it makes a great summer getaway. When visiting we thought the best way to explore this beautiful city was the foodie stroll with the Wine Cask restaurant. The Wine Cask is a Santa Barbara staple and set just off the main tourist street (State Street) on Anacapa, a great place to start a tour.
Our adventure starts on Tuesday, when the Santa Barbara Certified Farmer’s Market shuts down the State Street for a few hours so chefs, tourists and locals alike can shop from the different stands for local produce. For the foodie stroll, we walked with Chef Brandon Hughes while he made choices on what products he wants for the restaurant menu and our personal tasting menu later.
The stroll started at 3:30pm and involved the two of us, Chef Brandon and one of his sous chefs pulling a Wine Cask cart to load up on produce. After some quick introductions, we were off down the line. Everything from tomatoes, fresh herb, baby bok choy and blackberries, all fresh from the farms and looking delicious. I started asking Chef Brandon about his approach to cooking, which is all about the market and the season. He builds personal relationships with the producers and gets around 80% of his produce from the Santa Barbara Markets where he can see and touch before he buys.
He is not alone in this philosophy either because the first 30 minutes of the market, from 3:30 to 4, belong to the restaurants. Only chefs are allowed to purchase from the tables. I found this out when I heard a whistle and saw the people herd around the tables.
Chef Brandon was very accommodating with his time and was sincerely a nice guy. After exploring the market and having an hour to kill, it was time to go back to the Wine Cask and the enter the Margerum tasting room.
In the Margerum tasting room, we got to taste 7 wines Doug Margerum makes. The Santa Barbara County is best known for Pinot Noir and Syrah but the wine that really caught my taste buds was the 2009 Margerum “Vogelzang Vineyards” Sauvignon Blanc from the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. A mouthful to say and a mouthful of fun. This wine balanced the high acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc with an oily texture on the palate and bright tropical and citrus fruit notes.
Another exciting wine in the lineup was the 2008 Margerum M5 Rhone-blend. A blend of mainly Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre, this wine was full bodied with a velvety mouthfeel. It tasted like they had taken the blackberries and cherries straight from the market and put into the bottle, with a subtle finish of vanilla and pepper. The other wines were good as well but these were the true standouts in the tasting. It was also perfect timing because by the time we had tasted and paid, it was time to walk 50 feet and into the restaurant.
Wine Cask has an enormous dining area with the chef’s table slightly elevated where the bar used to be inside, providing a great view throughout the dining room and the outside patio. This is where we met Branden Bidwell, the wine director for Wine Cask.
Joined by another couple, we were escorted through a three course meal complete with wine pairing from the local wines Branden has on tap in the Wine Cask bar, Intermezzo. After a quick palate refresher, the lemony and zesty 2009 Ojai Vineyard Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc, it was time to listen to Chef Brandon explain how he made his crispy Kurabuta pork belly with kohlrabi, white currants, pea sprouts and pan jus. This was a thick and juicy piece of belly that just melted in your mouth with that salty crunch from the skin.
When paired with the rest of the goodies on the plate, it made for a great bite but for me it was all about that pork belly. We had both the 2010 Foxen Chenin Blanc and the 2009 Costa de Oro Chardonnay to go with this dish. Both had the acidity to stand up to the pork belly but I thought the orange soda, honeysuckle and citrus juice from the Foxen actually held up better that the more vanilla and honey flavors of the Costa de Oro.
The second course was Beef Three Ways: a wagyu NY strip with sweetbread hash and bone marrow. While I still think the best steak is in Texas, this was amazing. Meaty, rich and fatty with a hint of sweetness from a blackberry demi, this dish made me giggle with glee. The wine paired with it was the 2010 Margerum Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Ynez Valley, a wine not available in stores until 2013 but avaiable to taste because Doug Margerum set aside a keg for the Wine Cask.
The wine was definitely young and robust, full of jammy fruits and tannins that showed well next to the food but it will be interesting to try again in a few years when the flavors become more integrated.
Our dessert course, made by Rosie Gerard, was a “frozen” cream cheese parfait dome atop a red velvet cake with raspberries and chocolate. This was paired with a 2009 Curtis Viognier from Santa Ynez Valley. The wine, with strong orange and blossoms notes, was a great contrast to the parfait, which was rich chocolate from the cake and creamy like a cheesecake. This would have been a great end to a meal, if we weren’t a little crazy. By this point, the conversation had turned to foie gras and Branden recommended we try their version. So… our savory dessert course was a large piece of foie gras, paired with a peach tart and balsamic ice cream.
The seared foie mirrored the pork belly in consistency, melting in your mouth with the sharp bite of the vinegar in the creamy ice cream and the hint of sweetness from the tart. This is how you end a great meal. When asked what wine we should get with this course (as if I hadn’t had enough!) he came back with the 2007 Ojai Vineyard Viognier Ice Wine. With honeyed notes of apricots and pears with just a hint of vanilla, this worked wonderfully in rounding out the flavors in your mouth. Nina Hester from the table described it as a “hot black dress in your mouth” and with the sweet, honeyed notes of apricots, pear and vanilla, I can see what she was saying; this was a fantastic, classy combination in your mouth.
And so ended the journey, almost 6 hours later. The best part about this is that, without the extra course, the whole adventure is $65 per person, truly a steal for all that you get. If you are looking for ways to beat the heat here in DFW, Santa Barbara and the Foodie stroll with the Wine Cask is high on my list.