Once upon a time there was a wine store in Montecito. It was called Wine Festival--and it was not selling as much wine as its owners thought it should.
But the owners had the imagination, and the resources, to turn the store around. These days there are two signs in front. The old one says "Wine Festival" (the store); the new one says "Mischa" (the restaurant). The combination produces a very good restaurant with a very good selection of wines that can be consumed on or off the premises.
In order to make room for tables while continuing to stock wine, owners Alan and Mary Jane Matoza had to make the wine shelves a lot higher; it's not unusual to walk into Mischa and see Alan up on a ladder, searching for a bottle. While they were condensing the wine display, the Matozas painted the walls white, laid gray carpet, put in a wine bar, added some vivid paintings on the walls and a mixture of sophisticated jazz and subdued classical music on the sound system. The result is one of the area's more relaxed and attractive rooms.
To complete the metamorphosis, the Matozas hired Michael Ingertson to set up the menu and the kitchen. On paper, this would not seem an especially astute move, because Ingertson had no professional restaurant experience. But Ingertson's meals have turned out to be very professional.
I'd go back any time just for the grilled pork chop, which is cooked with apples and red onions sauteed with Calvados. On the side is warm red cabbage, cooked in the German style but not too sweet, and an inventive sweet potato gratin. The real plus in this dish? The chef's ability to send it out moist and dripping with juices.
The swordfish is about three quarters of an inch thick, served in what at least a couple of us call a "fabulous" rosemary aioli sauce. On the side are roasted red potatoes and a salad of raw zucchini and sweet red peppers, which beautifully offsets the strong flavors of the aioli.
When we ordered the fish we were told that the chef cooks it medium rare, and if we wanted it another way we should say so. We didn't say so. It was just right.
Ingertson's sauces and broths, especially those on the appetizers, are full of character. I was especially fond of the broth he makes with Chardonnay, cream, tomato, salt, white pepper and saffron, with mussels, prawns and scallops added at the last minute. The texture of the fish is attractive, and the saffron is an inspired touch.
There was a wonderful sauce on an appetizer I ordered one night--capellini pasta with mussels and asparagus in a saffron cream. My companion liked it so much I kept catching her reaching across the table to dip her bread into my sauce. It had more character, she said, than her own fettuccine with tomatoes and asparagus in roasted garlic cream. She was right.
I'd also pass on the Hama Hama oysters. The oysters themselves were quite good, but they were not improved by the champagne sauce with black pepper. And although a tart of roasted fennel, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and basil sounded as if it would have some real flavor excitement, it was just too subtle. The oyster and fennel soup, however, managed to be subtle, subdued and flavorful, all at the same time.
If you're there for lunch, there are a couple of variations on Mischa's dinner menu. One is a sandwich of grilled filet steak served on a baguette with sauteed peppers and onions. The meat is spectacular--tender and tasty. The other lunch item of note is also a sandwich--grilled Gruyere and Monterey Jack cheeses served with zinfandel-sauteed mushrooms and watercress on sourdough bread.
The report on Mischa's desserts is mixed. The bread pudding in a cognac sauce is a winner; it's so good, in fact, you can't help wishing there were more of it. And it would be hard to beat the homemade ice creams. But as good as they sound, neither the bourbon-pecan tart with Chantilly cream nor the raspberry and dark chocolate cream tart lived up to the rest of the menu.
Wine Festival may not have sold a lot of wine, but I hope Mischa is destined to sell a lot of food.
WHERE AND WHEN
Mischa, 1151 Coast Village Road, Montecito, (805) 969-4295. Open Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 6 to 9 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, reservations accepted. Beer and wine only. Lunch for two, food only, $18-$45; dinner for two, food only, $48-$65.