One problem with living on Southern California's idyllic coast is that we're automatic targets for visitors who have already seen Disneyland and are ready for something tastier.
In Santa Barbara, the Crown Jewel to which one escorts, or sends, visitors, has long been the Biltmore Hotel, most recently formalized as the Four Seasons Biltmore. The hotel has been a good spot for a drink, if only for the grandeur of its wide, tiled entrances, its arched public rooms, its lovely gardens and the setting, looking across the boulevard to the ocean.
But over the years, and three different ownerships, it was usually, "Let's have a drink at the Biltmore, but we'll find someplace else to eat."
Then the Four Seasons chain took it over; they recently brought in Wendy Little as chef. Little's background includes 10 years as executive chef at the San Ysidro Ranch and a stint with Mustard's in the Napa Valley. Suddenly you started hearing good things about the food at the Biltmore.
The Four Seasons also refurbished the place; with its open-air, glassed-in Patio and the more formal La Marina Restaurant, where Little is the chef. it is now the most luscious and distinguished of the area's hotels. More importantly, you no longer have to get up after that drink and look for someplace else to eat. Wendy Little has made the Biltmore restaurant a place where you actually go just to eat.
The lobster sausage appetizer in a basil butter sauce is succulent--soft in texture, firm enough to hold together. And the ravioli of vegetables and duckling are served in an outstanding spicy orange sauce, a sauce in which "spicy" is the operational word.
Maybe some of the accouterments--such as the slice of uninspired frittata that comes with the baked Maine lobster, or the dull trenette pasta under the sweetbreads, could be handled better. But the lobster itself, in a Champagne mustard sauce, is worth every penny of its price--and it is the most expensive item on the menu. And the sweetbreads, lightly breaded and cooked with morel mushrooms, make you ignore the pasta on which they are sitting.
Horseradish mousse has plenty of horseradish tang and still manages not to be overwhelming; it is an unusual dish, and perfect next to the beef tenderloin in Cabernet sauce.
Lunch--in spite of being served in the delightful courtyard--doesn't benefit from Little's expert touch and is a much weaker meal than dinner. But it has its moments. Chinese pot stickers at the staid Biltmore? Yep, crisp, tasty ones, with a strong mixture of wasabi horseradish and soy sauce. And tortilla soup with seafood is only $3.50 (a cocktail in the lounge costs nearly that much). But Mexican grilled seafood salad, despite its tender scallops and nicely cooked salmon, in a pleasant chili and lime sauce, had shrimp so tough that they ruined the dish. The crab-meat cakes could have used more crab and less of whatever was holding the cakes together. And to my taste the raspberry crisp we had for dessert was much too sweet.
The service at lunch isn't as good as it is at night either; it seems as though the management has called in the second string. This is especially noticeable in contrast to the service at dinner, which is outstanding. The young, obviously well-trained professionals tell you just what you want to know about the dishes while offering brief and stimulating thoughts on several of the menu items.
It was one such waiter who recommended the Mexican chocolate souffle. With its rich, bittersweet chocolate, it is about as good as souffles get. The Grand Marnier souffle is fine too, but after all, Grand Marnier is Grand Marnier.
Beware that cart they draw up alongside the table as dinner finishes. It's a great cart, full of older Ports, Armagnacs and Scotch malts. They all cost plenty.
By now, anyone who has even heard of the Biltmore over the years may well be muttering, "what about that fabulous (their word, not mine) Sunday morning buffet?" All I can say is, that's another story.
WHERE AND WHEN
Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, 1260 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara, (805) 969-2261. Serving in the Patio weekdays 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m., weekends 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, Reservations accepted. Full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $30-48. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$70.