Tag Archives: Santa Barbara

Visit II to Hitching Post II

Posted from Buellton, California, United States.

After my big claims about the best steak I’ve ever had, I decided I needed a revisit to make sure that wasn’t a fluke or just the wine talking. So on a nice leisurely Sunday afternoon drive up to San Luis Obispo I stopped off in Buellton at the famous Hitching Post II for a nice steak and glass of wine. The same wonderful smokey aromas from last time greeted me as I pulled off the road, a sign of great things to come.

While a little lonely at a table set for one, the atmosphere was mostly as before, just a little quieter due to it not being a holiday weekend. A glass of Highliner to start, which I still think is the best Pinot Noir in the region.

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I opened with the same simple salad, a nice fresh mix of several lettuces, with very crisp croutons, spicy black pepper, a light tangy vinegarette, and salty parmesan on top. I think they smoke the pepper or toast the croutons on the grill because there is a wonderful slight smoke to this salad that sets the tone for the upcoming main event.

I had to order the huge ribeye again. At 26 oz with a bone, this thing is monstrous and way too much food. But it is their only ribeye cut, my favorite cut for flavor and texture, so I guess that means steak sandwiches this week for lunch.

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One word, AMAZING. This is just as good as I remembered. After being disappointed with Cut in Beverly Hills a few weeks ago, and having also tried Pacific Dining Car for our anniversary, I was afraid this steak wouldn’t hold up to my memory. It does. This is still the best steak I have ever had.

A perfectly cooked medium rare, with tons of beef flavor and amazing texture, the outside is perfectly seasoned with Magic Dust, and a delicious buttery, crispy char courtesy of the red oak grill, trapping loads of delicious smoke. This time the steak came with some homemade salsa, which surprised me, but I gave it a go. Fresh and light, lots of chile flavor with very mild spice, this was a nice compliment to the steak. I wouldn’t say salsa improved the meat, but it certainly didn’t detract. It simply masks some of the beef flavors, replacing them with fresh tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro. The chef here clearly has a very good sense of balance and control of subtle flavor.

What else can I say? This is a great steak, and the sides would be worth their salt anywhere. Oh, the wine. Clearly made to pair with the great smokey flavors. Buy some for your next backyard BBQ! Too bad I can’t comment on the desert this time, as I was too full and still had a drive ahead if me.

So yes, stop by, and make sure you mimic me and pick up a jar of their Magic Dust and a few bottles of wine to take home! The only downside to this place is that when you waddle outside, the smell is so irresistible you’ll want to turn around and head right back in.

22 Flavors on the 101

Posted from Santa Barbara, California, United States.

While sitting in traffic waiting to get on the 101 we spotted an ice cream shop, Scoops in Montecito. On entering though, it turned out to be gelatos and sorbets.

I got the espresso gelato, with peanut butter cup gelato in a waffle cone. The scoops were generous, and the flavors good but light. Biggest downside is that they were very icy, and not the rich smooth texture gelato should have. The shop was making fresh cones, and had a chocolate batter version which I haven’t seen before; but I opted for the traditional waffle cone. The cone was slightly sweet, but chewy and could have used more browning. Between the texture and taste, it seemed stale, even though they were clearly making fresh cones. The cones also tasted as if they were made with water rather than dairy, as the flavor was light and missing the butterfat a good cone should have. Scoops had a nice touch of putting a mini marshmallow in the bottom of the cone to prevent drips, but mine was leaking like crazy within a minute or two.

Pearl got coconut and mango sorbets, also in a waffle cone. The coconut was rich and creamy, with loads of coconut flake mixed in. The mango sorbet however was tangy and tasted artificial.

Overall, we wouldn’t recommend it. We probably would have been better off with the shop on Stearns Wharf that was serving Thrifty ice cream and also had fresh-made cones.

coconut and mango sorbets in a waffle cone

Seafood on the Seashore

Posted from Santa Barbara, California, United States.

It was Sunday night on Memorial Day weekend, and Pearl had a hankering for seafood. Based on various reviews proclaiming its merits, we took a walk down to Stearns Wharf to try The Harbor Restaurant. My initial impressions were not promising. The decor and atmosphere seemed to match every generic seafood restaurant I’ve been to in California. The great views off the pier certainly gives it an edge, and we enjoyed shooting sunset photos while navigating the crowds. Even though every hotel in town was sold out, we were quickly seated, and the restaurant was half empty. This should have been a warning.

The Harbor Restaurant

Being Santa Barbara, you’d expect a good wine list, and they didn’t disappoint. I found a very extensive selection, primarily of California wines, to be encouraging, and not representative of most restaurants like this. Unfortunately, we didn’t go in for a full bottle, and the wines offered by the glass were mostly limited to a couple of generics found in almost every restaurant, with 2 exceptions: Flying Goat Pinot Noir (which we had tasted the day before at the winery) and EOS Zinfandel. I went for the Zin, and thought it very enjoyable, the highlight of my meal.Santa Barbara Sunset

We started with some raw oysters on the half shell. There were 3 different varieties on the normal menu, but a special added a fourth. The waiter didn’t know anything about them, which should have been a warning. I found them tasting too much like a bay under a pier and lacking in fresh ocean taste. I also found lots of bits of shell in each, and unseparated meat, indicating poor shucking technique.four kinds of oysters on the half shell

For our main courses, Pearl selected a whole Maine lobster and thoroughly enjoyed it. Granted, it was lobster with a ton of butter, and served with a side of corn-on-the-cob, both of which she finds impossible to pass up. But there certainly wasn’t anything spectacular about the lobster and the corn was bland.lobster with corn on the cob

I’m not much of a seafood fan, and almost half of the menu was steaks and sandwiches, including a prime rib dinner. This seemed promising, instead of the usual single filet mignon or strip steak entry found at seafood restaurants. Since the previous night was heavy on the steak, I opted for something a little lighter and chose the prime rib french dip sandwich. I was very disappointed. The meat was well-done, and clearly not made from their prime rib dinner. It was dry and flavorless, and had the texture of boiled or steamed beef. The bread was nice and fluffy with a light crispy crust, just like you’d find at Philipe’s in LA, but the the dipping sauce was generic, salty, thick, and tasted like it came out of a packet mix or can. Again, clearly not made with the pan drippings from a ribeye roast supposedly being prepared in-house. I didn’t even finish the sandwich.

French dip

So, overall verdict, if you want good, but generic seafood with great views, this is worth a stop. But if you want something new, or have terrestrial eaters in your party, keep looking.

Hitching Post II

Posted from Buellton, California, United States.

I’ve enjoyed Pinot Noirs for a while now, even before I ever saw Sideways. And one of my favorites has always been the Hitching Post Highliner, winner of several awards, and one of the defining wines bringing attention to the Santa Barbara winemaking region. So imagine my surprise when we start planning a trip, and can’t find the winery in any maps or searches. How can such a reputable label not have even a tasting room? All my searching kept pointing me to Hitching Post II, a restaurant in Beulton, just off the 101. A picture revealed the same logo, so at least it’s related, and online reviews rave about the BBQ steaks. Pino and BBQ go naturally hand in hand, so of course we made reservations, but I still wanted to find the winery.

After we made plans, did more research, and talked to more people, we discovered that Hitching Post wines were made specifically for the restaurant and that there isn’t a tasting room. Here I had assumed a great wine label had opened a restaurant, when in reality it was the other way around! Not only that, but it was one of the featured locations in Sideways. So after a day tasting along the road to Lompoc, we headed in to see what everything was about. The BBQ smoke outside was so enticing that I was ready to rush in, even though I wasn’t hungry. Since the only reservations we could get were at 9pm, we opted to switch to the waiting list at the very small and crowded bar. After about 20-30 minutes, we secured two chairs… low and behold, in the exact seats that Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church shared in the movie.
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Super-friendly bartenders, and a fun crowd, we settled in for some great wine and food. To start with, we each got a glass of their famous wine, I selected the Highliner, and my wife chose the Four Top (a blend of 4 Bordeaux varietals) as another to try based on the bartender’s recommendation. She wasted no time in switching the glasses on me whenever I wouldn’t notice, though both were great. We picked up a bottle of the Four Top to take home with us, since we already have the Highliner in our wine fridge and can get it locally.

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For an appetizer we went with everyone’s recommendation, the grilled artichoke. This was the best artichoke we’ve ever had. They take a locally grown artichoke, steam it, then split it down the middle and remove the spiny core. Next it receives a generous dusting of Magic Dust (salt, pepper, white pepper, cayenne, onion power, garlic power, ground celery seeds) and hits the red oak fired grill. Absolutely amazing smokey flavors, buttery texture, and spices that left me licking both my fingers and the dipping dish of chipotle mayo.

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We decided to split their monstrous 26 ounce rib chuck steak. This is basically a 2+ inch thick bone-in ribeye, grilled medium-rare. There was a side of baked potato, and a delicious house salad, and some great grilled bread, but the rib chop truly was the star of the show. Now, keep in mind I grew up in a dairy family, and a good steak is probably my favorite food. I enjoy grilling, and have no problem dropping $30-40 for a good dry-aged steak at the butcher. I grill, pan fry, sear and oven finish, roast, you name it. I know my beef, so really this is extremely high praise when I say This was the best steak I have ever eaten. It was rich, juicy, tender, absolutely perfectly cooked, warm throughout but still pink rich texture without being bloody or slimy. The exterior had a light sear but still moist with loads of rich smokey buttery flavor and seasoned with their Magic Dust.

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With all that praise on the steak, desert must have been a disappointment right? Wrong, peanut butter pie, how can you pass that up? Peanut butter folded with heavy cream to make filling with a chocolate top. Surprisingly not as heavy as it sounds and a great way to finish of the meal.

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I cannot praise this steak enough, and if you are in the area, you absolutely must make plans to visit. The wines are spectacular, and so is the food, and both are clearly made for each other. I wish wineries would open restaurants that focused on real pairings like this. I know that I won’t let another opportunity to hit up the Hitching Post pass me by!

Going Upscale at Downey’s

Posted from Santa Barbara, California, United States.

When we first planned to visit Santa Barbara for the weekend, we immediately began scoping out our dining options. Downeys on State Street immediately floated to the top of our list, having been the number-one Zagat rated restaurant for 26 years in a row. Hard to argue with ratings like that.

The interiors are simple California/French decor, very casual and simple, and the walls are liberally adorned with paintings by the chef’s wife, mostly of Central Coast beach landscapes. The dining room would benefit from the touch of a good interior designer, especially given the reputation of the restaurant, but everything was orderly and pleasant, just nothing special.

Downeys focuses on regional ingredients, and the menu changes nightly based on seasonal availability. With that in mind, I selected the duck entree which gets consistently great reviews, and my wife opted for the Taste of Santa Barbara pre fixe menu.

My wife’s dinner started with fresh mussels on the half shell. Plump and juicy, but the taste of the mussels was overpowered by the corn relish. Overall the flavors blended nicely with the natural bitterness of the watercress being replaced by a fresh crispness.

California mussels with corn relish

While she enjoyed her mussels, I opted for the prosciutto with cantaloupe appetizer. There was a nice buttery nuttiness, but the meat was very bitter, and completely overpowered the cantaloupe. I was not a fan, but the dish did bring out some very pleasant flavors in our bottle of wine, a chardonnay from Miner Family.

prosciutto with cantelope

While the wine was nice with the prosciutto, it suffered and tasted acidic alongside the unannounced soup. We were expecting a salad according to the menu, but the corn soup was a welcome substitution as Pearl is always a big fan of corn soups. There was a plethora of fresh basil, and rich flavors and texture, but the sun-dried tomatoes added an acidity which a little bit of sugar could have helped offset.

corn soup and Miner Family Chardonnay

For her entre, Pearl had fresh-caught local sea bass. The lobster cream sauce was amazing, combining wonderfully with the fresh flavors of the fish. However, it was definitely overcooked, and the fish salty. If it had been cooked just slightly less, this could have been an almost perfect dish.

California wild salmon with lobster sauce

I faired better with the duck. A nice crispy charred skin covered a rich textured interior. I don’t know how they did it, but this duck was not fatty at all, and the meat was tender and amazing flavorful. I kept being reminded of a good tri-tip as I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual duck presentation. Served over a bed of mixed grains in a wine reduction, the grains were a little on the al dente side but rich in flavor and texture variety. Also plated was some fresh mango which added a nice freshness to the dish as the fruity sweetness was masked by the wine sauce. Our wine selection didn’t stand up though. All flavor was completely stripped out when paired with the duck.

grilled duck with mango

I know I keep going on about the wine, but at its price and reputation, this restaurant should offer a good showing of local specialties. Supposedly the chef’s wife (aka the painter) also makes all the wine selections. When we described our taste preferences, the waitress narrowed down the extensive list to three recommendation. We selected one, and the waitress came back out a few minutes later to let us know the vintage they had on hand had changed, and that we probably wouldn’t care for the flavor profile based on what we described. This was exceptional service and knowledge which we really appreciated. She gave us a new recommendation, the Miner Family Chardonnay which we thoroughly enjoyed. This wine definitely is a pleasant drinking experience on its own, but failed to pair well with the majority of dishes in our dinner.

After the main courses, we had a cheese and fruit course, selecting three: St. Andres triple cream, Keens Cheddar, and a nice rich Stilton. All were fantastic, and the variety of flavors and interactions really let the wine make a good impression.

cheese course

So for desert, Pearl went with the house specialty, fresh raspberries layered with a white chocolate whipped cream and sandwiched between two layers of flaky pastry. This was a beautiful dish, and I have no idea how they were able to cut it so perfectly without making a mess of the pastry.

raspberry creme pastry

I elected the chocolate dish. This is what chocolate was meant to be, an amazing dense no-flour chocolate cake, with a rich dark chocolate ganache to cover, a dusting of hazelnuts, and an espresso creme anglaise. This is the richest, most exquisite chocolate I have ever had. So delicious and fulfilling that I could barely touch the complementary truffles that came with the bill.

chocolate cake with creme anglaise

Overall an expensive evening, but I think worth the price. The waitstaff were knowledgeable, all very friendly and helpful, and the food flavors were really quite good, despite some minor preparation flaws.