Santa Barbara’s veggie-driven cuisine flops

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Veggie-friendly fare, photo via Santa Barbara

To me, the self-imposed practices of vegetarianism and veganism are reactionary abnegations of the over-consumption of meat in the western diet. It’s as if anyone with any concern about the health or environmental effects of meat consumption or the nature of the meat industry must entirely reject meat-eating.

Luckily, for sensible people, there is a third way. Rather than completely abandoning meat and other animal-derived food products like some kind of fundamentalist, there is a growing trend to reduce, but not eliminate, meat intake and instead give the starring role to vegetables or foodstuffs derived therefrom. This approach has been espoused by a number of influential food writers, such as the New York Times’ Mark Bittman and the Guardian’s Nigel Slater.

Now restaurants are starting to jump on the bandwagon. In a city still beholden to French culinary traditions in which a main course is invariably centred on a hunk of meat, this is a welcome trend.

Santa Barbara, a newish restaurant in Petite-Patrie, exemplifies what I have been describing. The great majority of its dishes are vegetarian, and a good number are vegan. Yet there are still a few items containing a modest amount of meat, fish or seafood. I recently hit it up for a Friday night repast.

I called ahead to get a table for two but was told that reservations were only accepted for groups of six or more. The restaurant was packed when we entered at 8 p.m.., and we had to wait a good half-hour to be seated. A bench or some other form of seating was sorely missing from the entrance area of this minimally appointed but otherwise welcoming locale.

After a round of unusual and very enjoyable cocktails, we entered our meal through a sweet corn chowder ($6) — pleasantly sweet and creamy, but otherwise unremarkable.

After this, we had a selection of mezze, or small appetizers. We especially enjoyed the Russian kale salad with avocado, pumpkin seeds and shiitake mushrooms ($9). The kale seemed to have been blanched, softening it slightly but allowing it to retain some of its intrinsic crunch. The soft, ripe avocado and the crunchy pumpkin seeds offered nice textural counterpoints. The shiitakes rounded out the flavour, providing a gentle umami undertone.

We also liked the velvety puréed cannellini beans, enriched with the deep, earthy flavours of caramelized onion and rosemary ($4). I wasn’t too keen on the whole wheat, toasted sourdough bread that accompanied them; a softer, sweeter white bread would have been preferable, even if less healthy.

The last of our mezze, the leek fritters with citrus labneh ($5), was mediocre — shapeless, fried too strongly and slightly too oily. The leek flavour was nearly imperceptible.

For mains, we shared braised “Sacred Lamb” (at Santa Barbara, get it?) ($21) and some PEI beer-steamed mussels ($17). The former was a tender, braised piece of lamb shoulder in a rich, slightly tangy sauce, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and accompanied with squash and brown rice. It was tasty but not particularly memorable. The squash halves and rice that accompanied it were an afterthought — just there on the side, unadorned and not integrated into the dish in any meaningful way.

The generous pile of mussels was steamed in Corona and flavoured with chipotle peppers, fennel, celery and leek and accompanied by the same sourdough bread that came with the bean purée. Though not the best mussels I’ve ever had (I prefer mussels steamed in white wine), they were tasty enough, with the fennel and celery playing a particularly dominant role in the flavour. As with the bean paste, the accompanying sourdough toast was not a good vehicle for sopping up the aromatic broth at the bottom of the bowl.

Overall, I found the food at Santa Barbara to be of home-cooking calibre: better than average, perhaps, but not great. The flavouring of most of the dishes wasn’t particularly well-tuned and the presentation was, in all cases, very basic, if not sloppy. I very much like the idea of vegetable-driven cuisine, but I think a little bit more can be expected from a restaurant, even at Santa Barbara’s fairly modest prices. ■

Santa Barbara
436 St-Zotique E.
Wednesday-Friday 5–11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Vegetarian-friendly: Very
Booze: Yes
Cards: Yes
Accessibility: One step up
 
Santa Barbara Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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