Last weekend we went to Santa Barbara and had a delightful experience participating in the inaugural cooking lesson by Chef Robert Perez, owner of Seagrass (30 East Ortega Street). Trained in France, the Netherlands, and as a sous chef at L’Auberge de Soleil, Perez opened his first restaurant Citronée near Sacramento before moving thirteen years later to Santa Barbara. This intimate family-run restaurant is elegant but not severe, relaxed and informal. The chef’s wife, Marianna, serves as hostess and his son, Ruben, manages and greets guests.
Seagrass is rated #1 by Zagat’s, with #2 being Bouchon (where we had an equally phenomenal meal the night before). What made Seagrass especially memorable for us foodies, is that we had not only the exuberant chef all to ourselves but his sincerity and hospitality in the kitchen made us feel like we were in our own home. The “coastal cuisine” that Chef Perez specializes in is deserving of the highest praise: the quality of ingredients includes local shellfish, salmon flown in from New Zealand, locally raised lamb, regional wild boar, and farmers market produce. Together with mostly Santa Barbara County wines, what more could anyone ask for?
Before sitting down to the three-course lunch of soup (cauliflower-puree garnished with a smathering of tiny crispy soba noodles), Alpine salmon, and chocolate mousse with chocolate decadence cake on the side, we had a demonstration of how to prepare this exquisitely designed meal.
For the soup–we watched the chef nurture a classic vichyssoise. Next was the pièce de résistance –the entrée of Alpine Salmon (Mi Cuit –“half-cooked”) with green cabbage “slaw” and tomato basil beurre blanc. (For the truly curious, check out our YouTube clip at “seagrass cooking demo“).
This unusual salmon entrée is a bridge between sashimi and ceviche. Semi-cured in olive oil, salmon mi-cuit can be served at room temperature or cold. Olive oil is heated to 120-130 degrees and then poured over the raw salmon filets, submerging them gently in the pan to soften, retaining an amazingly bright pumpkin color. Hence, the “mi-cuit“, the half-cooked, half-cured salmon. While the filets soak, the Napa green cabbage “slaw” is lightly sautéed in a pan with carrots (diced into tiny cubes) and then plated first, as a bed for the salmon mi-cuit. Lastly, an incandescent and translucent tomato beurre blanc is prepared and gently poured over the perfectly bathed salmon. And voilà– salmon mi- cuit!
For lunch Seagrass paired Melville’s crispy delicate Viognier with cauliflower soup and Ojai’s gorgeously fruity Presidio Syrah with the salmon mi cuit. Each menu item is created, Chef Perez informed us, with wine in mind– nothing too delicate or too spicy to overpower each recommended wine. Ever since the movie “Sideways”, Santa Barbara is now inseparable from its association with wine and proud of it. This restaurant has some of the best wines the region has to offer. Bon Appétit!