STORY and PHOTOS BY BRETT LEIGH DICKS
(this is a re-print from April 24, 2014)
“You’re doing what?” Adam Clinton, 41, asked as he almost choked on his chowder when told of the News-Press’ day-long quest while sharing a table at lunchtime. “Where do you start with that?”
It was a good question, one that was pondered at length prior to arriving on the doorstep of Santa Barbara Public Market late last week. Like the rest of Santa Barbara, the News-Press wanted to get to know the city’s newest culinary destination. So just days after the market opened, we decided to, shall we say, introduce ourselves. No, not by simply taking a stroll through the halls and saying hello to the vendors. No, not by simply taking a taste here and there from those handing out samples.
No, with 14 vendors at our disposal – Rori’s Artisanal Creamery, Enjoy Cupcakes, Crazy Good Bread Co., The Pasta Shoppe, Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar and Belcampo Meat Co. among them – there was only one way to get thoroughly and utterly acquainted:
By eating our way through the market.
In one day.
When we arrived at 7 a.m., the market was already stirring to life. Shelves were being stocked, fresh seafood was being unloaded onto ice and produce was being artfully arranged for display.
But where to start?
After reaching for the snooze button, the next thing many people grab the first thing in the morning is a cup of Joe , so the choice was obvious: Green Star Coffee.
Having been roasting its premium organic fair-trade coffee beans for the past 10 years – several local coffee houses and restaurants use the product – the Goleta-based company was inspired to open its own retail location upon hearing about the new market. It offers a range of brewed coffee and espresso drinks. So we asked – like we did with all the vendors (how else to choose?) – for a recommendation. The Caffe Latte ($3.75 for a large) was the perfect wake-up call: rich, creamy and plenty hot.
Curtailing the urge to head across to Rori’s Artisanal Creamery, which stands as an alluring temptress for anyone with a sweet tooth, it made more gastronomic sense – we came to determine after a fair amount of talking ourselves into it – to follow a typical day’s eating pattern. (Fortunately, Rori’s wasn’t yet open anyway.) Which is how we ended up next at JuiceWell, which offers bottled pressed juices, smoothies and cleanses. The Manna juice ($8.50 for a 12-ounce bottle) is touted as one of the “energy” remedies – something we were going to need with up to 141/2 hours of digestion ahead of us. A deep shade of green from a blend of cucumber, kale, Swiss chard, celery, parsley, apple, lemon, ginger, lime and cinnamon, it is as healthy as it looks. No single ingredient overwhelms the other, making this surprisingly sweet (not “chlorophyll-y” as expected) drink a delicious kick-start to the day.
Equally delicious are the Ojai Valley Pixie Growers’ Pixie tangerines ($3.39/pound) at Foragers Pantry, just one sample of the array of fresh local produce the grocer carries. With juice on the mind, it seemed like a logical transition. With a bounty of choices for every meal, you could literally eat here all day long. But with places to go, we stopped at just four Pixies. With lunchtime still a ways off (and Rori’s apparently not yet open), olive oil tasting at nearby Il Fustino Oils & Vinegars was next on the agenda (which, we reasoned, would pair well with the following stop).
The company offers an extensive selection of California-grown-and-milled extra-virgin and cold-pressed olive oils as well as a fine selection of vinegars. It also has a variety of herb-, fruit- and mushroom-infused flavored oils. But the garlic-infused olive oil ($19.95 for a 12.7-ounce bottle) was what got our attention – it will keep even your closest friends at breath’s length away.
Nothing goes better with olive oil than bread, and Crazy Good Bread Co. has no shortage of intriguing loaves. Lining the racks is an array of crusty choices like Orange Chocolate and Fig Masala. The nutty Walnut Country Loaf ($7) was the loaf of the day and perfect for getting rid of the lingering garlicky taste. Crunchy and soft in all the right places, it was crazy good bread, indeed.
While the market did a bustling trade all morning, by lunchtime, the place was packed.
Counters were filling, lines were forming …
And the stomach, filled with mostly liquid at this point, was growling.
With seating nonexistent at the lunch spots that offer it, we decided on Flagstone Pantry, whose menu includes a variety of entrees, sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods that can be packed to go or eaten at one of the few common small dining areas. Flagstone Pantry was an obvious favorite already with the crowds. Its Polenta Napoleon ($8.95), a lasagna-type dish made with polenta, grilled zucchini, mozzarella and Parmesan, came straight from the oven and was elegantly served atop marinara sauce. It is the perfect gluten-free comfort food. We took it to one of the seating areas and proceeded to pace ourselves – managing (with much restraint) to eat just half and saving the rest. This was, after all, the first of two lunches this day.
Not to be outdone, comfort food was also the order of the day at Belcampo Meat Co., where a number of patrons were observed disappearing with their lunch orders into the neighboring Wine + Beer, which has ample space for seating. Debbie Richards, 47, and Kris Burnell, 53, first-timers to the market, were among them. Ms. Richards, of Santa Barbara, enjoyed a Meatball Sandwich and Fries while Ms. Burnell, of Goleta, ate a Poblano Pork Cemita with Spicy Fried Broccolini; each savored a glass of a Stolpman Vineyards red.
“This is a great idea,” Ms. Richards said of eating inside the bar. “We wandered around, decided what we wanted for lunch and brought it in here to eat with a glass of wine.”
Ms. Richards added that after lunch they planned to stroll around to see what the market has for dessert.
“Or we might just stay here for dessert,” Ms. Burnell interjected with a laugh. “I have just spotted a very nice looking bottle of port down there on the bottom shelf.”
After conversing over a glass of Wine + Beer’s smooth and sweet Belgium Affligem Blonde ($8.50) with the two friends, we were off to Belcampo to try its Philadelphia Cheesesteak ($12), round two for lunch.
The sandwich features thinly sliced seared beef, red and green bell peppers, onions and a surprisingly light cheese sauce – which really lets the meat shine – all packed onto a crusty bread roll. Sitting at the meatery’s small counter, which is separated from butcher Hans Liebl’s cutting block by just a half panel of glass, the theatrical carving and flaying was as captivating as the smoky sandwich. The company prides itself on its certified organic, grass-fed and humane meat sourced from its own farm – and that translates in the product: The meat was tender and moist, obligingly falling apart with each bite. A huge sandwich, we reluctantly stopped at half. (Not to worry, the rest made for an indulgent midnight snack – yes, we kept on eating.)
Though the heart screamed for ice cream, with cheese on the brain we headed to The Culture Counter Co., where we got a cone of another sort. Inside those Culture Counter-stamped paper cones we kept seeing visitors eating from are slices of cheese or cured meats. Almost as chic as the deli cones is the cheese curler the store uses to offer up a taste of its Tete de Moine. Its rotation around the wheel of cheese yields fine shavings ($5 per box), giving the seductive cheese a melt-in-your-mouth quality.
Looking to lighten things up, we headed to Santa Monica Seafood. Since 1939, the family-run Santa Monica-based business has offered high-quality seafood products while being at the forefront of preservation and aquaculture efforts. There is no better example of the prevailing freshness than a plate of six just-shucked oysters. The plate included two each of Paradise Point, Kusshi (both from British Columbia) and Kumamoto (from Northern California) oysters ($16). As they slipped down the throat, the tender and plump Kusshi were some of the finest oysters we ever tasted.
Seafood was also the special of the day at The Pasta Shoppe. Behind a counter filled with freshly made pasta ready to take home and boil, chef Brian Dodero meticulously constructed a plate of Capellini con I Pomodori Surro Zafferano with Santa Barbara Spot Prawns ($15).
“The great thing about being here in the market is that you have everything under the one roof,” Mr. Dodero said. “I can walk around and get inspired and then use what’s fresh. The prawn dish was inspired by what I saw at Santa Monica Seafood this morning.”
With exceptionally tender noodles, saffron butter, cherry tomatoes, lemon and herbs, the shrimp capellini was indeed inspiring – so much so we almost ate the whole plate, and could have.
But because one plate or bowl of noodles is never enough – at least on this day – the News-Press was off to the Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar for dinner No. 2. Inspired by the cuisines of Thailand and Taiwan, Empty Bowl offers authentic regional noodle bowls and handmade dumplings. Made from scratch, the Khoa Soi ($13.95) features organic chicken stewed in a curry-based broth and will have you slurping noodles and dribbling broth until the bowl is empty.
Full, yes, but not too full for dessert.
Enjoy Cupcakes offers a flight of six artfully presented and lovingly prepared mini cupcakes in imaginative flavors such as Chocolate Blackberry Syrah and Salted Turkish Coffee for $6. But because we were making room for one more vendor, we settled on just one – the Bananas Foster.
Finally, it was time for ice cream.
Rori’s offers 19 flavors, said a clerk. We went for the John Martin (coconut with shavings of dark chocolate). And the Milk Chocolate Chunk.
Yes, a double scoop ($5.50).
Hey, we weren’t waiting 11 hours for nothing.
So good was the ice cream that even arriving back at the car to find a parking citation ($48!!) couldn’t dampen our enjoyment of it. The market might be big on memorable food experiences but it is short on parking – so don’t forget to watch the clock, as time easily slips away at the Santa Barbara Public Market.