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It's a Corker

August 20, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

What is it about Santa Barbara? it's more beautiful than the Cote d'Azur. It's blessed with a wealth of great ingredients--everything from those gorgeous local spot prawns, mussels and sea urchin roe to extraordinary produce that would be the envy of any place in the country. It's also in a region that produces some of California's most distinguished wines.

Yet it has only a handful of restaurants enticing enough to warrant a special trip. And for all that, it's not the posh hotel dining rooms or the Mediterranean or California cuisine restaurants that stand out. The one that evokes the most passionate response year after year is La Super Rica--terrific, but basically a taco shack.

Here's a downtown Santa Barbara restaurant to try. Bouchon is on Victoria Street, just off busy State Street, and only a couple of doors down from that sweet Italian ristorante Olio e Limone. Bouchon, of course, means cork, and this engaging 2-year-old restaurant is devoted to the idea of Santa Barbara "wine country cuisine," a fancy way to describe cooking that shows off the local wines.

It's a charming small restaurant where twinkly blue lights are twined around tree trunks in front, and two knee-high fountains on either side of the entrance gurgle a welcome. On a balmy summer night, it's lovely to sit in the tented patio room in front in the wavering light from a flotilla of fat candles. The restaurant interior looks like a well-loved, lived-in space. At the back, the open kitchen is framed in copper.

To take advantage of local ingredients, Bouchon's menus are rigorously seasonal. Four times a year, chef Charles Fredericks rolls out his new menu. For the three or so months each menu is in effect, he basically cooks just that. The good news is that you won't have to listen to your waiter recite an interminable list of specials. On the other hand, if you eat at Bouchon often, you might find yourself hoping for a few more specials to catch your interest.

His summer menu offers a lovely plate of house-smoked local albacore "carpaccio." The seared fish is served in blood-rare slices garnished with baby arugula, shaved Parmigiano and a vinaigrette sparked with crushed mustard seeds. The punch of the mustard works wonderfully against the velvety smoked albacore and peppery arugula. In an accompanying salad, Santa Barbara County "field" greens are tossed in a mirin-ginger vinaigrette.

Those same field greens appear in Fredericks' eccentric version of the Tuscan bread salad, panzanella, which is roughly equal parts torn bread, tomatoes, sweet onion, cucumbers and basil leaves tossed with olive oil and red-wine vinegar. Along with tomatoes, Fredericks' has Blue Lake green beans, hard croutons and goat cheese, which tends to weigh down the salad. The balsamic dressing only adds to the effect. Why he calls it a panzanella is beyond me. On the other hand, his four-onion French soup is one of the best onion soups I've had in Southern California. The broth is sweet and beefy, the crouton generously laced with Gruyere that strings when you take a bite. It's not a particularly summery dish, but it would be just the thing to have on a damp winter night.

Fredericks gets beautiful local fish, such as Pacific wild salmon or Santa Barbara Channel white sea bass. The rapini, nutty wild rice and roasted shallots that he serves with his horseradish-seared wild salmon nicely complement the fish, though the cranberry-Pinot Noir reduction could be subtler so as not to overwhelm the nuances of this glorious piece of fish. The pan-roasted sea bass is delicious enough on its own. Why perch it awkwardly on top of arugula capellini? Just the oddly named bursted tomato beurre blanc with lemon basil that it's served with would have been enough.

Fredericks is brimming with ideas. I think, though, that many dishes would make a stronger impression if he didn't try to cram so many ideas and flavors onto one plate. This is true of his appetizer of pan-seared foie gras. Juices from the liver, topped with a peach compote, soak into a toasted brioche "pallet" fenced in by a blackberry-Zinfandel essence. It's foie gras as summer pudding. There's just too much going on, and too much of it is sweet. Tempura squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese are interesting on their own, so the charred tomato ragout is a distraction. The equivalent of a jammy, overripe wine, the ragout covers the delicacy of the squash blossoms.

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