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RESTAURANT REVIEW : FENNEL : Nothing Bland Here : Brigitte and Norbert Schulz's new Santa Barbara vegetarian restaurant is a far cry from the typical '60s-derivative eatery.

October 08, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Santa Barbara owes much of its reputation as a fine restaurant town to the energy and talents of Norbert and Brigitte Schulz. They own Brigitte's, the very popular bistro on State Street, as well as Allegro (formerly Norbert's), an upscale Mediterranean restaurant. They also helped John Downey open his superb restaurant, Downey's. And two of their former chefs own the Montecito Cafe and Oysters.

Now there's Fennel.

A vegetarian restaurant located on the Mesa, it was the result of Brigitte's personal tastes.

Good business instincts were another factor, for two of Santa Barbara's most popular downtown restaurants, The Sojourner and The Main Squeeze, are also vegetarian.

Fennel is a far cry from most '60s-derivative vegetarian restaurants, with their brown rice, tofu, sprouts and good but bland vegetables.

Fennel's heritage is more superb French country inns or rustic Italian trattorias.

The restaurant is very cute. They put in dark-green, old-fashioned board-and-batten paneling, set out green gingham tablecloths and commissioned a lovely mural in lyrical pastels. But the long low counter from the original coffee shop remains and so does the laid-back, scrappy feeling of the place.

Prices are astonishingly reasonable. With a system of ordering at the register and picking up dishes at the counter, all the energy goes into food preparation rather than people-serving.

And what food. It was almost shockingly good--like being able to see after being blind. A watercress salad ($5.75) came with either a delectable pear stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese, or succulent fried Brie with slices of tart green apples. Spinach salad had superb greens along with fat white mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs with bright yellow yolks. Its tart mustard dressing contrasted pleasingly with the sweetness of roasted pecans.

White bean and vegetable soup ($2.50) was a clear, subtle soup with firm white beans and flecks of vegetables. Spicy tomato soup resembled a mulligatawny soup and was gaspingly hot. Most dishes were very lightly salted.

My favorite hot dish was the three bean chili ($4.75), made with mild delicious beans and served with corn cakes--plops of fresh corn kernels held together with a falafel-like mixture. They came with novel, paper-thin, sweet parsnip chips.

Spinach linguini with finely chopped vegetables and Parmesan cheese ($6.25) and lasagna with spinach, ricotta, pine nuts and mushrooms were subtly flavored and definitely homemade. The bread was marvelous, especially the big soft olive rolls. Dishes appeared with slices of fresh fruit and most of the produce was organic.

The garden burger ($4.75) had Middle Eastern overtones. It also came with two glorious slices of cooked eggplant, great fresh tomatoes and radicchio. It was so big it had to be split and eaten in shifts.

A terrific grilled cheese sandwich had mild sourdough bread, great gobs of melted cheese and fabulous roasted peppers.

On the weekends Fennel makes a few breakfast dishes, such as poached eggs served on little beds of spinach, in a sauce fragrant with nutmeg. These came with crisp--or slightly underdone--boiled tomatoes.

They also made the most wonderful lemon ricotta pancakes that tasted like lemon tarts, served with a sweet strawberry compote.

Fennel has just opened, and over several visits I found some inconsistencies. One day the poached eggs were perfect, the next day they were hard-boiled. A breakfast frittata was also overcooked.

I went back for another fantastic mozzarella, basil and tomato--made with fresh mozzarella and thick sliced tomatoes kissed with the wonders of balsamic vinegar and basil. This time the sandwich came with crunchy damp salsa rather than tomatoes and basil.

I also found that when the place was crowded, the serving system became chaotic.

I suspect the process is still evolving.

I worry if they become really popular, they won't be able to sustain this kind of intensive food preparation.

I may have to stop by regularly just to keep an eye on it.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Fennel, 1812 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara, 962-0337. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. No wine or beer yet, bring your own. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only $14-$30.

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