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Trip Report: Carmel to Santa Barbara (along hwy 1)

taarfirion | Dec 6, 201503:21 PM     3


Recently did a 6 day road trip down Central Coast, using many of your suggestions from Chowhound, so i thought I report back on my experiences.

We started in SF bay area, first stop (food wise) was Carmel for lunch. We visually inspected Bouchee but it was closed anyways; Anton & Michel was open but I wasn't excited by the menu so we went to our old standby La Bicyclette. Mushroom and parsnip veloute, house pate, stewed chicken and sausage pasta, and creme brulee, very solid.

Several mentions encouraged us to stop at the Big Sur Bakery but we didn't purchase anything - they had two kinds of cookies by the bag for what to us was an exorbitant price (even by San Francisco standards), and nothing much else.

Dinner was in Cambria, at the Black Cat Bistro which we first dined at years and years ago and I was blown away by their brown butter sage gnocci. The dining room still looked the same all these years later; the food was decent but either we've gotten pickier, or things have changed - it's not the wow it was before. The bread was very "home made", in that it felt more earnest than it tasted delicious. Sage gnocchi (shiitake, cremini, martini cream, radicchio, asiago, sage) was good but several notches below my memory. Abalone and pork belly appetizers both decent.

For mains I had scallops over corn pudding and a sauce I can't exactly recall. All 3 were excellent individually but together I felt they didn't quite synergize. My partner's pork loin in a coffee-based sauce with brussel sprouts was the exciting dish of the night, and the only one that didn't taste heavy on cream. Overall Black Cat is still likely a great choice in Cambria; perhaps my expectations where overly high from the fond memories.

Next day I had hoped to stop at either Ruddell's Smokehouse in Cayucos or Mo's BBQ (2 locations). But being Thanksgiving day, all were closed and we just lunched at one of the few open places (San Luis Fish & BBQ). Not much to write about there.

Dinner was at the restaurant in our hotel, Mad & Vin, in Solvang. Again there were limited options and I wanted to ensure at least a reservation so I didn't try to go too far afield. Nice settings, but food and service were both awkward. Great hotel though.

Next morning we missed the opportunity of a small early morning line at the Solvang Restaurant for aebleskiver takeout; in the afternoon the line was too long for us to contemplate. So no aebleskiver for us this time, though we do a home made dutch version called "poffertjes" which I can't imagine is much worse than Solvang's offerings :).

The several bakeries in town all were disappointing; but lunch at Succulent Cafe delivered on the chowhound promise: meatloaf sandwich, cream of carrot soup, and shrimp n grits (omg creamy) with poached eggs, all hearty and delicious.

We stopped at the El Rancho Marketplace before leaving town; cool place with some interesting items we've not seen elsewhere (like Blossom Water, yum).

Arriving at Santa Barbara, we dined at Sama Sama Kitchen. Despite good recs from you guys, I couldn't give it high marks. It was pricey even with happy hour specials; perhaps I am not used to getting even lower price-to-value ratio than SF bay area. Food was good, especially the stewed eggplant over rice dish (can't find it on their online menu), perhaps we didn't order the best things, left feeling a little less than satisfied.

Day 4 breakfast was at the B&B. Then we happened by Chocolats du Cali Bressan at the La Arcada, and after sampling a plain milk chocolate bar, we splurged on a full box of truffles. Very good chocolates and truffles, comparable to the best European shops.

Latte at Green Star was lackluster.

Late brunch at Scarlett Begonia hit the spot with house made pretzel (hot, salty, nice dip), shrimp and grits, and fried chicken oysters in a red eye sauce and a superb biscuit. If we had time I'd definitely return for dinner.

McConnell's ice cream: pretty good.

For dinner we went to the slightly out of way Barbareno. It's the kind of places we like: a bit more upscale, a lot more food "connoisseur" both in staff knowledge/service and in the food. Started with a Chef's Plate because we wanted to try all 3 appetizers: eggamuffins, cold smoked tenderloin tartare (yum) and avocado gazpacho (very yum). Not sure if it was a server error or just really generous portion, but 1 order came with 4 of each. Their signature Santa Maria tritip was house cold smoked, then sous vide cooked to perfection before charred and served with wonderful legumes - highlight of the dinner. We skipped a 2nd main and dessert due to being too full but me thinks their "plate of pork" would have a success as well. We were early diners but the place was very sparse even when we left at 7, being a Saturday night. They mention they don't get a lot of tourist traffic, so hounds should definitely give them a go.

Last day, I found Renaud's Patisseries and C'est Cheese. Both turned out highly excellent. We only picked up pastries at Renauds (first, financier and chocolate vanilla cake, then went back later for apricot pastry, almond croissant, and more of the top notch financiers) but their outdoor seating looked very cozy. Coffee at Handlebar went very nicely with the pastries. Then we were both pleasantly surprised next door with C'est Cheese: a house pate sandwich for $3 at the deli counter, one of the best biscuit ever (bacon cheddar, so crusty and moist and flakey and well balanced between savory and smoky from bacon).

Late lunch at Empty Bowl noodle in the Public Market was a perfect smallish meal before an early dinner. We wanted a bit of ethic flavor, however the thai boat noodle doesn't really compare to the ones we get in SF and from Thai chefs we know personally in south bay.

The last hurrah of the trip was to be in Los Alamos, at the Full of Life Flatbread. We checked it out on the way south, and the menu looked so good we changed our itinerary to fit it in, 4pm Sunday on the way home. And it did not disappoint. We passed the convivial atmosphere in the surprisingly large restaurant, opting for the porch seating with our young baby. The waitstaff was young, and I would guess local youth, but quite professional. For food we went mostly off the specials board:
- smoked winter squash soup with roasted pumpkin seeds (exquisite!)
- Hollister yellowtail and ginger aguachile (hits like a refreshing truck, in a good way)
- Chicory and mountain rose apple salad with dandelion (an adult dish with plenty of bitters but grows on you, and counter points the main course)
- A split full size flatbread with both of the day's specials: black kale and house made lamb chorizo; wild chanterelle & garlic confit and smoked leek sauce (divine)
- Apple hand pie (the only not-wow dish)
- Roasted parsnip and duck egg creme brulee - the reason I had to make a detour to go here and it was as amazing as expected

All's good that ends on a high note!

Big thanks again to all hounds before us that paved the way to these places, especially "glbtrtr" and "JalamaMama"!

Solvang Brewing Company
Succulent Cafe
El Rancho Market
Sama Sama Kitchen
Scarlett Begonia
McConnell's Fine Ice Creams
Mission Street Ice Cream & Yogurt - Featuring McConnell's Fine Ice Creams
C'est Cheese
Renaud's Bakery and Bistro
Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar
Santa Barbara Public Market
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