Even for Montecito, the San Ysidro Ranch is something special. Its tree-lined, cobbled drive takes you to leisure's lair, not just a stunning physical location in the Santa Barbara foothills, not just a connection to a more gilded time (here's the obligatory mention of JFK and Jackie O's honeymoon and Olivier and Leigh's wedding), but a different sense of time entirely. It's not as much time stands still but that it slows and thickens so you can float above it, a peace that lets you accept the distant lights of the offshore oil rigs as beauty meant for you as much as the productive gardens pumping out gorgeous produce even in December.
Of course part of the site's natural awesomeness nearly took the historic spot down, first with the Thomas Fire and then the subsequent debris flow that roared down San Ysidro Creek. A gas main explosion took out nearly half the property, including much of the Wine Spectator Grand Award wine cellar. It took 15 months to re-open, but that time also became a chance to do a freshen up. Then COVID came along, throwing all of the travel world into another mess.
So, pretending Omicron isn't as scary as it is, Chryss and I were hosted for a dinner at the Stonehouse the other evening, and based on this visit, it should move to the top of anyone's special event planning list. Of course there's just the location, captured best in the photo atop this post, provided by the hotel. (Note the rest of the photos were taken by phone without flash as that's too rude in dim light, so they don't do anywhere near full service to the food they attempt to capture. Think of them almost like a court artist's drawings....) The Terrace is a magical spot, both indoor and outdoor at once, glimmering with each table's gas lamp--such romantic lighting--and then the strewn twinkle of lights above, the fireplace aglow, too. You almost feel worthy enough to have the food you are about to enjoy.
Even as you ponder the menu, let alone the 12,000 bottle wine list, you get a relish tray--perhaps that's the ranch part of the Ranch?--to nibble on, some French breakfast radishes (both milder and more elegant) and a pile of piquant olives, and bread, three kinds (popover, Parmesan crisp, kalamata) that means you have to try all three, of course. There's olive oil that shames you for what you use at home. Waiters welcome you by name, warn you that the Santa Barbara lobster specials are about to sell out. They are old school professionals you can feel smiling behind their masks they wear for you.
And so we dug into our appetizers, the roasted chestnut and porcini soup for Chryss, a half dozen oysters for me. That soup was just what pre-Christmas ordered, something Dickensian and delicious and not done by enough places. Maybe that's because getting its balance isn't easy? Full flavored, creamy textured, this soup was spot on. And then the oysters, well, you have to start with prime bivalves, and these certainly were (I missed their provenance). The hard thing with an oyster is not gussying it up so much it becomes a dish with oyster-flavoring, and Chef Matthew Johnson and crew were deftly up to the task, even with a lot of moving parts for bites, well, let's call them Kennedy half dollar size, given the location. The Prosecco gelée gave them a bit of sparkle and then the supreme of Pixie tangerine provided each bite its own palate cleanser, almost. The tiny hits of mango and Persian cucumber drew out both bass and treble from the oyster and its briny blast. Plus the seaweed bed underneath was delightfully edible and crunchy.
For mains Chryss went with the extravagant Maine lobster cioppino complete with Maine lobster tail, Atlantic halibut, Hope Ranch mussels, Little Neck Clams, tiger prawns, and calamari--it almost seemed that the only seaworthy thing missing was Coelacanth. They pulled off the trickiest part of fish stew--making sure nothing was fish rubber or fish glue, as it's so easy to overcook an item or two. And all that now swam in a roasted tomato and saffron broth the Stonehouse could serve as a soup on its own, it's so don't-miss-a-drop-of-it good. Luckily, there was grilled ciabatta for sopping.
I opted for the appropriately fast-selling special local lobster, which came with house-made spinach fettuccine, a lemon-wine-butter sauce that tasted terrifically of all three components singing a happy harmonic song, and then chanterelles, lots (just saw them at the supermarket for $70 a pound--did not buy them). But the star was definitely the lobster, so fresh it might have swam ashore and into the pot they cooked it in, buttery itself, sweet, and then that quick shiv of iodine only great lobster has--you get to taste the kelp the lobster itself enjoyed. An indulgent, elegant, extravagant bowl of delight. (This photo doesn't do it any sort of justice.)
If you were wondering, we wined by the glass, which you can do perfectly well. Chryss had a Mail Road pinot noir, I had a Racines chardonnay, and my god is Santa Barbara making world class wines befitting a world class meal. This might also be the place to discuss price, and again, we were comped so.... This was not a cheap meal by any means (that cioppino goes for $76, if you were wondering, so you can extrapolate the rest). That pointed out, every bit of your time at the Stonehouse will be extraordinary. So you decide what such an experience is worth to you.
Especially when you can end with fire or soufflés. Despite the cold and considering that perhaps having something flambéd next to us might be worth it, we opted against items like a baked Alaska or crepes Suzette. (We did get to enjoy a nearby couple's tableside flaming of a steak Diane earlier in the evening, that brandy sauce letting its tarragon waft wonderfully across the terrace.) No, we went for the soufflé, in particular the Valrhona Manjari Chocolate one. Our waiter insisted we try the mint chocolate chip ice cream as the mint came from their organic garden and it was the best in the world, so we said sure, thinking it would sub for the dish's usual espresso ice cream. Nope, they brought us both. We ate almost all of it, somehow. Oh, who am I kidding, we ate it because everything was exemplary--that soufflé so light it hit with all its eggy, cocoa flavor and was gone from your mouth, an elegant memory.