Truth is, there’s no trichinosis in American commercial pork anymore that would require it to be cooked well-done to kill the spores. (If you kill a wild bear or genuinely wild boar, you’d better cook it to 165 degrees — them’s loaded with trich, but not pork — not unless the hog’s been reared in some muddy backyard and fed on scraps of other backyard pigs that came before it.) And especially, pork breeders who raise heirloom breeds like Kurobuta (Berkshire) hogs aren’t fools to hurt themselves by following practices that might allow this parasite to infect their precious piggies. (The heritage breeds haven’t been engineered for modern “other white meat” leanness and quick weight gain. They’re slow growers, and like great beef, their meat is marbled.)
And so we received a perfect pork chop, thick, rosy pink, tender, with real pork flavor. (The chef brines it first, too.) The sides — bacon, apple, baby potatoes — were delicious, but you could have served that chop with a side of gravel; it was the perfect, juicy meat that counted.
Scallops dusted with smoked salt and sweet chili sauce were meltingly tender, plated over something that looked like Seussian green mashed potatoes, or maybe undiluted Campbell’s split-pea soup. It’s a fava bean and edamame mash. It verged on baby-food blandness, but the chef left a lot of the peeled baby favas whole for texture, which made a difference. (If I had my way, I’d blast it with unconscionable amounts of butter. Or truffle oil.)
Seafood tagine Provençal arrived in a conical ceramic tagine cooker, but its contents weren’t remotely Moroccan. Rather, they were a San Franciscan (or Sicilian) cioppino, lightened up, and minus Frisco’s Dungeness crab. The tomato-based sauce, seasoned with fresh thyme sprigs, held local mussels, clams, and that perfect oxymoron, jumbo shrimps (blue prawns from Hawaii) still in their shells, plus bits of finfish. The prawns were a tad overcooked (and messy to eat), but the bivalves were all fine. Lynne fell in love with the dish, while it primarily made me nostalgic for the Bay Area.
Other entrée choices are mainly maritime: The chef and our waitress both favor the seared ahi (a dish I’m bored with, so didn’t order), but apparently it’s pulled off here with great Hawaiian fish and care in cooking. Pacific salmon is scarce and exorbitant this year, but the two salmon dishes both use sustainably farm-raised Scottish Loch Duart salmon, not the awful (mushy, hormone- and antibiotic-blasted, artificially colored) Atlantic farm-raised stuff from our continent. There’s also wild unendangered sea bass, free-range chicken (a favorite of kiddies too hip for the kiddie menu), and Brandt Farm’s naturally raised beefsteaks.
Choosing affordable wines was relatively easy. Unlike most of my recent expeditions, this list has plenty around the $30 mark. Many selections are evidently chosen to comfort the Yumans — big-production supermarket names like Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi. But there are plenty of interesting selections around $30, too, although I should have ordered the crisp Mentelle Sauvignon-Semillon blend from Australia first, for the appetizers, before the richer Echelon Viognier, which would have been better with the mains.
With no specialized pastry chef, Bannister’s desserts gravitate to the light and fruity. We were tempted by pears with Valrhona chocolate sauce (Les poires Belle Helene in classic French cooking) but chose a homey cobbler of Fuji apples (which aren’t very sweet) and blueberries, with vanilla-bean ice cream on the side. It tasted not just house-made but homemade, thoroughly pleasing, and anything but cloying. After food this tasty, I didn’t want to spoil the spell, and instead of the usual decaf I ordered regular espresso, which was as rich as I hoped.
“Looking at the menu on the website,” said Lynne, “I didn’t have real high expectations, but this is so much better than I imagined.” We asked Tara to box up every last leftover bit. “Too precious too waste,” I said. “This isn’t like your mom saying, ‘Eat your broccoli, think of the starving children in Africa.’ This is ‘We don’t throw away fine craftsmanship.’ ”
ABOUT THE CHEF
Many chefs are inspired to go into the business by their mothers’ great cooking. With chef de cuisine Danny Bannister, aged 28, it was the opposite. “I joke with my mom that it was her cooking that made me become a chef, because even as a young child, I always wanted to do something to make her food better. The smell of burnt wasn’t unusual. I love my mom to death, but — as a child I always wanted to help in the kitchen. I was what they call a picky eater. But as a teenager I never thought it was a feasible career. I’m from Ventura, and in Ventura, still, there are no really good restaurants, because there’s not a lot of money there, people don’t have the expendable income for eating out. I didn’t grow up knowing that being a chef was a career that could make you comfortable and maybe even wealthy.
“When I was 18, my brother and I bought a small restaurant in Ventura. I thought that this would be what we’d do for the rest of our lives — be restaurant moguls. But the restaurant was failing, and it was too late to breathe new life into it. So by the time I was 20, I decided to move to Santa Barbara and start going to college. I got a job on the pier at a little restaurant and worked there for the summer and loved the life in the kitchen, being a cook, and the camaraderie.… I still thought I’d just be a cook throughout college, while I majored in anthropology.”
Bannister hadn’t yet tasted great (or even very good) food; he simply had a hunch that eating could be something special. “Then I got a job in 2000 at the Bacara Resort and Spa,” he said, “a five-diamond restaurant in northern Santa Barbara. And everything was beautiful, superstars from L.A. would come, all the cooks in their perfectly white chef coats, perfect mise en place…I had never seen a place like this in my entire life. I really started to fall in love with food when I was there.… I thought I hated tomatoes, and then the chef insisted that I taste my first heirloom tomato, and it blew me away. I hated mushrooms as a child, and then I tasted chanterelles. Once I became an adult, in my early 20s, I tried everything again, and I really fell in love with food.