Going Upscale at Downey’s

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.

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