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SANTA BARBARA HARVEST / COOKING

On-the-coast ingenuity

Santa Barbara's best local ingredients seem to speak to Square One chef Jason Tuley.

September 05, 2007|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Jason Tuley stands in the middle of a sun-drenched farm field on an early Saturday morning in Los Olivos, Calif., holding a fat, dappled squash in one hand and a long, red noodle bean in the other. He tucks the squash under an arm, snaps the sturdy 18-inch-long bean in half and takes a bite. He looks at it askance for a second or two, then says, "That's one of those ones you have to think about for a few days before you cook with it."

It's not often that the chef and co-owner of Square One restaurant in Santa Barbara is stumped for ideas. He's big on ideas. The 33-year-old Santa Barbara native who remembers eating red abalone and thresher shark as a kid has a knack for making the most of an abundance of local ingredients -- spot prawns or rock crab straight from the channel, fresh Purple Glazer garlic or heirloom Lemon Boy tomatoes that have been planted for him by a specialty grower at Stonecrest Farms in Los Olivos.

As much as 80% of the vegetables he uses at the restaurant comes from the farm, 26 acres located about 35 minutes north of Santa Barbara, surrounded by apple and walnut orchards and across the road from a miniature-horse ranch. The rest he gets from farmers markets. "The restaurant is right between the Tuesday market on one side and the Saturday market on the other," he says. "Each season seems better than the last. I could change the menu every day if I wanted."

For practicality's sake, it's more like every week and a half, and it's a rotating roster of Santa Barbara's freshest. Right now it's local white sea bass with white-wine-braised romaine, saffron foam and grilled mussels; whole roasted gold spotted sand bass with a raw-artichoke-and-herb salad; crisp-fried Stonecrest Farms squash blossoms as big as your hand, draped with Iberico-style ham and served with a salsa of tiny yellow tomatillos (they taste like sweet gooseberries) and pickled shishito peppers.

The panko-crusted red abalone he serves with a mousse-like artichoke foam and barigoule -- artichoke hearts braised in a white wine broth -- has a texture almost like creamy calamari and a slightly sweet flavor reminiscent of scallops. For a relleno, he uses Santa Barbara red rock crabs and peppers called corno di toro, an Italian varietal that's long, horn-shaped, earthy-sweet and mild, grown at Stonecrest.

Around the corner and a world away from the mid-afternoon-margarita crowd on newly brick-lined, heavily touristed State Street, Square One is Tuley's oasis, with pale blue and ivory walls, high ceilings, a long travertine bar, tall vases filled with gladioluses and a single Julian Schnabel painting hung by the door.

Tuley completed the culinary program at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, and worked his way around kitchens in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. He was executive chef of Neo, an erstwhile contemporary-American restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco. After returning to Santa Barbara, he helmed the stoves at Stella Mare's and was executive chef at a private club.

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A kitchen of his own

TWO years ago, with co-owner and general manager Caitlin Scholle, he opened Square One, tucked away on Cota Street, where shuttle service Bill's Bus sometimes passes to transport inebriated college students from Q's or Sharkee's back to Isla Vista.

In Square One's tiny kitchen, the young chef wearing black Persol glasses preps locally farmed red abalone. Because of overfishing, California's commercial abalone fishery was shut down by the late '90s. (In the '70s, Santa Barbara's fishermen harvested two-thirds of California's abalone catch.)

And though farmed abalone, such as that from the Cultured Abalone outside Santa Barbara, has helped encourage a comeback, abalone still isn't showing up on many restaurant menus. Perhaps that's because it's tricky to prepare, though to watch Tuley handle the shellfish, you'd never know it.

"Growing up, one of my dad's best friends was an abalone diver, and I remember eating it really young," Tuley says. "And I've been cooking with it for the last 10 years. You just have to be careful cooking it. It's really, really easy" to overcook.

Tuley grabs a fillet knife, and the tattoos that cover his arms down to his wrists peek out from the sleeves of his whites. From the refrigerator he takes a live abalone, a meaty gastropod with a thick shell. "By looking at it, you'd think the thing was so tough," he says, "but it can be so delicate."

He sprinkles the creature inside the shell with kosher salt, lets it sit a few minutes, then rubs it clean with a kitchen towel and rinses it off. With a large spoon, he scoops the abalone meat from the shell and cuts off the tough "foot." Using the fillet knife and moving it in a sawing motion, he thinly slices the abalone, then pounds each side of the fillet a couple of times on a wooden board with the studded side of a kitchen mallet. You don't have to pound it a lot, but you have to use enough force that the fillets become limp, he says.

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