Santa Barbara had been on my "California bucket list" since I arrived in LA over 1.5 years ago. With the clock ticking towards my February move back to NYC, I knew that I had to get there before I jumped ship! So, with my buddy in town for the New Year's holiday weekend, we decided to make a quick, 24-hour jaunt.
After snagging a delicious breakfast on-the-go at Champagne Bakery ("Le Metro" Breakfast Sandwich: Whole wheat soft roll, Egg, herbed cream cheese, tomato and avocado), Jean and I made the seamless 1.5 hour trek to Santa B.
"All I want to do," Jean had been saying for months, "is eat uni (sea urchin) fresh from its shell. Like, literally off of a boat!" She wasn't alone in that desire. Unfortunately, I was having the damnedest time so much as locating a restaurant that had uni on its menu - forget about successfully finding an uni diving boat that we could hijack! So, with that, Jean and I decided it would be best to just ask the locals once we arrived in town.
The first item on the agenda upon our 10:45AM arrival was to drop our bags at the hotel. While it was located on the ocean, the Hyatt Santa Barbara felt a bit more motel than hotel. The air in our room was circulated via a window unit, which felt a bit too "rustic" for me. To make matters worse, when we asked the front desk agent to direct us to the concierge, she told us that, during this particular season, there wasn't one on staff. "Alrighty then," Jean said. "Perhaps you can help: Are you able to tell us where we could find the freshest uni/sea urchin in town?" The agent looked at Jean as if she had five heads before shaking her head "no." Clearly, she had no clue what the hell Jean was talking about. "Wait, but isn't 'uni' what Santa Barbara is famous for?"
After we left our motor lodge hotel, I suggested that we stop by the Four Seasons and pick the brain of their concierge. I mean, if anyone would be fully staffed, it'd be them! While we were given a slew of winieries to visit in Santa Ynez and Los Olivos - which proved helpful later - we were once again disappointed by the employee's lack of "uni knowledge."
Where can a pair of hungry gals find some freshly-procured sea urchin up in this motha'? Apparently nowhere...
Post our pit-stop at the Four Seasons, Jean and I took to the road and drove 45-minutes east towards the Santa Ynez wine country. In an effort not to get obliterated, we chose to split tastings at each of the three wineries we visited: Sunstone, Rusack, and Demetria. Of those, we preferred Sunstone's buttery chardonnays and rich, fruity zinfandel to the lack of varietal variety at the other vineyards.
For lunch, we went to Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafe, which was featured in the wine-centric movie, Sideways! Jean and I split three dishes - Alba Pizza (mushroom trio, ricotta, arugula, parmesan, truffle oil, and a gluten-free crust on request), the Butternut Squash & Burrata Salad, and a Crab Melt - which were all outstanding. To boot, the service and atmosphere were also top-notch.
Upon our return to Santa Barbara-proper, Jean and I formally checked in to the Hyatt and chilled for a bit before making our way back out for shopping and dinner on State Street. This involved snapping photos of quirky chotchkies, eating ice cream for a pre-meal appetizer, and settling for a sushi restaurant in the hopes that they would have fresh uni on the menu.
Finally, fresh uni! Although the rolls and other dishes we ordered at Arigato were over-priced and mediocre at best, the sea urchin was beyond spot-on.
After having learned that the Santa Barbara Fish Market - located steps from the water - opened at 9AM on Sunday's, Jean and I decided to wake up early and get there as soon as we could - after all, this would likely be our best chance of eating freshly-cracked uni out of its shell.
And, sure enough, we were in luck! Not only did the Fish Market offer just-caught uni still in its shell, the employees were kind enough to allow Jean and I behind the counter to watch the entire experience - from the breaking of the shell and cleaning of the flesh to savoring every morsel in our mouths - take place before our very eyes!
While Jean chose tuna poke to accompany her uni, I indulged in Dungeness crab from Monterey Bay (located north of Santa B). It was incredibly fresh and delicious!
With our mission accomplished and bellies full, Jean and I took a quick stroll along the water before heading back to State Street to shop and eat lunch prior to returning to LA.
My other wish came true...I scored a solid Mexican lunch - and one of the best tacos I've had, to date - at The Mex Authentic!
I am pleased to say that I can officially take "visiting Santa Barbara" off of my bucket list. Jean and I had a fantastic time and I look forward to returning sometime in the future!
Until we eat again,
The Lunch Belle