I recently dined at Barbareño, a new restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA where I was served, among many wonderful things, eucalyptus ice cream.
Eucalyptus ice cream. Intriguing, right? Especially to a Californian, because this ice cream tasted so much like California, and particularly of Santa Barbara, that it made my heart ache just a tiny bit – in the most delightful and delicious way.
This trip was a homecoming of sorts for me, and the eucalyptus ice cream made it just a little more poignant. I have a long relationship with Santa Barbara, having lived there in the 1980s. I often weave a fantasy about moving back there someday.
That move would be made much easier by the promise of many more meals at Barbareño. It’s my kind of restaurant in more ways than one. First, Chef Julian Martinez and General Manager Jesse Gaddy, the two twenty-something partners behind Barbareño, are committed to a farm-to-table approach. They take this philosophy one step further by celebrating the food (and wine) of the Central Coast with a focus on artisanal purveyors. In the process of staying local, they’ve managed to capture something of the essence of the area. An essence I feared was long gone. The food, atmosphere and location (a sane 2 blocks west of the State Street madness) remind me of my time in Santa Barbara. A time when a quieter Santa Barbara offered a unique California lifestyle that couldn’t be interchanged with other coastal cities. The menu at Barbareño is seasonal and will certainly change often, but you can expect well-crafted, reimaginings of Central Coast specialties like red oak BBQ Tri-Tip with indigenous pinquito beans, and a dinnertime riff on the Egg McMuffin (invented in Santa Barbara in late 1960s).
We visited the restaurant during the 30th Annual Santa Barbara Film Festival and chose the seven course FilmFeast Tasting Menu. Like the previously mentioned Eggamuffin, the film festival menu features serious taste with a creative, light-hearted approach. Each course paid homage to a movie with some sort of Santa Barbara connection. Such as The Goonies Course: “The Only Thing We Serve Here is Tongue”. A delicious tongue-in-cheek send up of tongue on tongue. I swear I don’t make this stuff up. Chef Martinez served beef tongue with uni and horseradish – we literally lapped it up (okay, stop me now).
But the eucalyptus ice cream was the dish that most captured my attention and is the reason for today’s post. This ice cream is a perfect illustration of the mission of Barbareño because it’s food that cannot be separated from its place of origin. Local eucalyptus is the terroir in this ice cream. But it’s the sweetly pungent authentic flavor and fragrance that takes me back in time.
I first moved to California in the 1980s to go to college in Santa Barbara– though I’d never been to the state before and I couldn’t have picked out Santa Barbara on a map. In fact I chose Santa Barbara solely on the romantic notion of becoming a Californian.
After a bit of culture shock passing through Los Angeles, I vividly recall driving north on the 101. The freeway meets the ocean in Ventura and both seem to sparkle magically in the California sunshine. The drive will always be beautiful, but it can never again match the pure exhilaration I felt making that drive for the very first time. For someone my age, the song “Ventura Highway” by the 1970s band America (“Ventura highway in the sunshine, where the days are longer and the nights are stronger than moonshine”) comes to mind.
All of California’s coastal drives are iconic. However, there’s one place in particular that defines California for me after all these years. That spot is the Santa Barbara county line at Ventura. The coast makes a dramatic left turn here and runs east to west. The mountains are no longer beside you, they’re in front of you. The perfect metaphor for that time in my life.
On my first drive into Santa Barbara all those years ago we were so awed by our surroundings that we decided to pull over and take in the sights. We chose the beach near Padaro Lane as our stopping place. In those days you could pull off the freeway and park in front of the lemon groves that lined the access road. Those lemon groves have been replaced by houses and no parking signs, but the rest of Padaro Lane looks pretty much the same. It smells the same too. This is the spot I first took in the intoxicating, almost overpowering fragrance of eucalyptus.
We Californians have a love/hate thing with eucalyptus. First of all eucalyptus is a beautiful tree. It sways and rustles in the breeze. It creates deep, cool shade in places that might otherwise be too hot and arid to enjoy. It’s also a tree that is everywhere you turn. It’s not hard to associate this tree with the state I love, and thereby love the tree. However, it’s an invasive Australian import that’s as big a fire hazard as it is a water hog. It was first introduced in the 1800s to be a fetching spot of green in areas that would otherwise be dominated by brown, gold or gray. By the 1950s it was possible to drive the entire length of California from Shasta County to San Diego without losing sight (or smell) of eucalyptus blue-green foliage. Today there are campaigns to eradicate the tree as much as possible.
Which makes me just a little bit sad. I understand the drawbacks of this tree, I really do. But I can’t separate the tree and its fragrance from this place I love. Which is why I was so smitten with Barbareño Chef Julian Martinez’s eucalyptus ice cream. I added walnut pralines to his recipe, because walnuts are another tree I deeply associate with California. But don’t get me started. GREG
Barbareño 205 West Canon Perdido Street (805) 963-9591
I received compensation in order to bring information about Santa Barbara to this blog. All opinions are my own.