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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Wine Cask Offers Old World Charm : The Spanish-style courtyard and intimate dining room are tucked away from Santa Barbara's tourist traffic.

October 13, 1994|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The loveliest dining in Santa Barbara--inside or outside--isn't up on a hillside overlooking the city and the sea. And it isn't upstairs in a building at the edge of the harbor, or nestled in the hills above Montecito at a famed resort.

To my mind, the loveliest dining in town is still right downtown, at the Wine Cask, snuggled into the back of the city's Spanish revival-style El Paseo retail development. But the Wine Cask is far enough off the tourist traffic route that a patron sitting in the restaurant's own courtyard, glass of wine in hand, might be reminded of the small, white-walled courtyards of, perhaps, Granada.

Inside, the spacious yet intimate dining room--with its high ceiling, hand-painted beams and dark carpets--has a quiet simplicity. The large fireplace and bird's-eye maple bar add to the gently romantic feel of the place.

It's not difficult to figure out that Doug Margerum, the restaurant's operator, is a wine person. The original Wine Cask, which he opened some years ago on the other side of the small courtyard, was basically a wine store with a small restaurant in the rear. Today, there's a large wine store on one side of the courtyard, the restaurant on the other--and substantial wine lists at both.

In its early years, The Wine Cask seemed to be a restaurant ready to take off, ready to mature and become outstanding. The promise is still there.

Since we last visited the Wine Cask in fall of 1991, Margerum has installed a new chef. He is Galen Doi, classically French-trained, but with Japanese roots. The result of that combination is an eclectic menu. On occasion this produces dishes that, when combined with the environment, make the diner swear this is the best restaurant in Santa Barbara. But then you return to find another dish that is completely lacking in flavor, inspiration or character.

The same lack of consistency is apparent in the service, which can be professionally excellent or dismally lacking. This may partly be due to the restaurant's tip pooling system. But there may be a more obvious explanation: The restaurant often has too few servers.

Chef Doi creates some outstanding dishes. His rabbit ($16.50 dinner), braised and served with potato gnocchi, is great. The sauce, a red wine broth with sage flavorings, accents a dish studded with morels, carrots, pearl onions and porcinis. The roast rack of New Zealand lamb ($22.50 dinner), with its jus of roasted garlic and herbs, is red and succulent, and the potato croquettes with white Cheddar cheese are perfect.

If you can use a bit of drama in an appetizer, Doi comes up with a flavorful won-ton purse ($7.95 dinner) of vegetables and rock shrimp--deep fried, crisp and large. Red chile and plum sauces are served on the side.

A lot less dramatic but of a superb quality is the small Caesar salad ($5.25 dinner), with outstanding garlic bread croutons and just the right touches of oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and anchovy.

There's a light afternoon menu, which boasts a tasty, spicy grilled chicken sausage ($6.50 afternoon), with a warm salad of firm white beans, and caramelized onions and mustard. The sausage is made of spicy mustard, lots of thyme, chopped onions and basil.

But all is not heavenly, even in this quiet, white, shaded corner of the American Riviera.

Someone in the kitchen has a heavy hand with salad dressings. The duck confit salad ($7.25 dinner) would be a lovely blend of flavors, including candied pecans and Gorgonzola cheese. But the raspberry vinaigrette is so sweet it overwhelms everything else. Ditto for the generous Cobb salad ($7.95 dinner), with the heavy sweetness of a honey-mustard vinaigrette.

A stuffed Anaheim chili ($7.95 dinner) appe tizer, with small corn fritters and a salsa of tomatoes, red onions and papaya, typifies the menu's eclectic, inconsistent nature. When the chiles themselves are hot enough, it's a wonderful dish. When they're not, it all just sits there on the plate, whimpering.

An especially dull dish is the potato-crusted halibut ($15.50 dinner). The sauteed spinach and shitake mushrooms with a bland cioppino sauce don't help.

When it's time for dessert, again the kitchen falters, with the exception of summer lime cheesecake ($6) with toasted coconut crust, one dessert that was good every time. Doi's black-bottom banana cream tart ($6), which sometimes has enough bananas and tart chocolate to be sublime, on others has nearly no banana, is short on chocolate and, accordingly, devoid of flavor.

Details

* WHAT: Wine Cask.

* WHERE: 813 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, 966-9463.

* WHEN: Breakfast, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for appetizers and sandwiches daily, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

* ETC: Reservations and major credit cards accepted, full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $20-$50. Dinner for two, food only, $37-$70.

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