Hidden Oasis in Santa Barbara: New “Biltmore” Dining Venue Takes You Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/13/17

Don’t let its diminutive dimensions fool you. At 120 square feet, the Luna Terrace at the Four Seasons Resort “The Biltmore” Santa Barbara is likely the smallest noshing spot in town. But with a palpable sensuality that spreads from the décor to the menu, this is elite dining at its finest.

The mezze spread at Luna Terrace
Luna was created when the resort’s Ty Lounge underwent a full revamp last year, a project inspired by owner Ty Warner’s own extensive travels. A south-facing window became a wrought iron glass door, vegetation was cleared and a 12-by-10 space aimed at transporting guests through premium food and service was born.
“This is a little, intimate social hub,” says food and beverage manager Koji Akaboshi. “We want to tap into guests’ emotions, allow them to really connect with each other, and to really play to their senses – you hear the waves, feel the breeze, connect with the environment.” The private event venue is targeted to parties of two to eight and is prime for everything from a festive celebration to a secluded night out.
Luna leverages the luxury resort's prime beachfront location and famously lush surroundings perfectly; guests are completely enveloped by towering plants and colorful flowers. But it’s also a totally self-contained experience, emulating the shades and flavors of Morocco, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Custom wood furnishings are elaborate and eclectic, yet cushy, decked out in plush pillows and threaded spreads. The imported lamps, dinnerware and cutlery exude a Persian flare. Colors are striking and opulent at once: sapphire, camel, crimson and gold. Fabric drapes and canopy help round out a veritable oasis.
My wife loved our secluded Luna Terrace escape
Specialized training has created a service experience at Luna that’s unhurried and that pivots on refined attention: premium bottle service comes standard; bartenders mix and pour their custom cocktails on the spot; chefs arrive with the main courses to describe dishes and mingle with their guests. “We love to interact with our customers,” says Executive Chef Marco Fossati, who’s spearheading a culinary revolution at all the Biltmore dining rooms. “Not only because we want customers to understand the passion behind our dishes, but so we can also better understand their preferences. The more comfortable guests are with you, the better you can cater to them and surprise them.”
Pomegranate seeds add color & pop to the baba ghanoush
Drawing from his work experience at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, Chef Fossati has created new exotic dishes for the Luna experience. He lists herbs and spices he’s using much more readily: turmeric, cardamom, cloves, paprika, curry, cayenne pepper. “I love the combination of all these flavors,” he says. “The magic of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine is how these vastly different flavors actually create balance and dishes that are elegant.”
Dining is modeled after a traditional Moroccan mezze, which is served family-style in multiple courses. A basket of grilled flatbread and fried pita bread, all made in-house, are presented with a variety of gourmet dips, like charred eggplant, yogurt-and-herb and piquillo pepper-and-almond. The charred eggplant dip is velvety smooth and subtly earthy. The hummus is made with roasted garlic, smoked paprika, za’taar (an ancient Middle Eastern herb mixture) and preserved lemon, and is served warm.
A large mezze plate follows. Skewers of grilled chicken and lamb kofta come with a cilantro dressing for dipping. Ornate individual tagines carry a bevy of steaming seasonal vegetables, topped with poached eggs and herbs. The whole roasted cauliflower is like a crowning jewel. “Cauliflower is trending big right now,” says Chef Fossati, who strips the white contoured plant of its leaves before poaching it in a solution of white wine vinegar, water, red chili pepper, turmeric and salt “until it’s al dente” before baking it in the oven, drizzling it sporadically with olive oil and spices. “As it’s leaving the kitchen, we finish it with lemon and za’taar,” he adds. The gourmet cauliflower is served with a creamy blend of mild goat cheese, mascarpone cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil, for dipping.
The Luna Terrace décor is lush and exotic
The generous menu can cater to a variety of guest experiences on Luna Terrace. The “Casablanca Romance For Two” ($500), for example, features the entire two-course mezze along with Champagne or wine bottle service (off the full Ty Lounge bar menu) and a delightful tagine salver of decadent sweet treats. Couples can opt for sunset or moonlit service, and the experience comes with a three-hour limit. Similar “Moroccan Feast” presentations can be tailored for parties of up to eight people and with extras like rolling cart with private bartender and premium liquor bottle service. Private brunch ($75 per person) can be prepared at Luna, too, complete with bottomless mimosa, bellini or bloody mary bar.
Reservations for Luna Terrace are made through the Biltmore’s concierge. And while the mezze model is the only one of its kind in Santa Barbara, and easily one of its most distinctive dining experiences, the Luna experience can always be customized and personalized. After all, Chef Fossati says, “this is all about catering to desires.”
Luna Terrace at Ty Lounge, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, 1260 Channel Drive, Montecito. 805-969-2261. fourseasons.com/santabarbara.
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Sunset Sips: Wine Goes Wild at the Santa Barbara Zoo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 13, 2017

Who knew: the wildest spot in Santa Barbara is quickly becoming a wine lover’s haven.  “Most of our guests are Santa Barbara locals who maybe haven’t been to the zoo in a while and are drawn by a unique new way of experiencing it,” says the Zoo’s special event coordinator, Cheyenne Brooks, of the Sunset Sips series.

A main attraction at these summer gatherings, which take place after the zoo closes for the day, is the beautiful rolling hilltop lawn, usually the setting for weddings and special events. You can see the waters of East Beach from there, and the sights and sounds of the zoo’s residents only add to the magic. In fact, Sunset Sips guests get to feed the giraffes, ride the train that circles the property and even roam the zoo (as most animals are retiring into their dens for the night).

This month’s event is the final in this year’s series and will feature three boutique wineries: Pence Ranch, Roark Wine Co. and Sevtap. Common Cidery will also pour and Enterprise Fish Company, Vida Natural Baking Company and Hippy Pop Popcorn will dole out the edibles. See you at Sunset Sips on Thursday, July 20th from 5:30-7:30pm. $30 at sbzoo.org.

(Want more wine at the zoo? Attend the Dignitarios event during Fiesta, which features numerous local wineries, and look for the zoo’s annual Roar & Pour wine festival in May.)

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Sip N' Swirl: Wine with a View at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 7, 2017

Going on its fifth year, the Sip N' Swirl summer series at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel is a local’s favorite, where the focus is squarely on the wine.

“It’s a social environment where people come taste wine and have fun but also network with other like-minded people who are interested in all things Santa Barbara wine,” says Marc Simonetti, assistant GM at the hotel’s Finch & Fork restaurant. To that end, five wineries are featured each month; stalwarts like Zaca Mesa and newbies like Lavender Oak have already poured this summer. There’s the occasional special treat, too. “Last month’s tasting coincided with the hotel’s Negroni Week, so everybody finished off with a Negroni nightcap,” says Simonetti.

Good luck, though, focusing on what’s in your glass. Sip N' Swirl takes place on the Canary’s rooftop, famously one of the best vantage points in Santa Barbara. The views of the ocean, the mountains and the hotel’s myriad red tile-roofed neighbors, especially as the day dwindles, are breathtaking. Live music and gourmet cheeses come standard.

The three remaining Sip N' Swirl events are all on a Wednesday from 5:30-7:30pm:  July 19 (Larner and Babcock are pouring), August 16 and September 20. $35 at nightout.com.

The Canary and Finch & Fork are part of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

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Seaside Sipping: Tasting Series at “The Biltmore” Focuses on Santa Barbara Locals

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Rachel Rock

“I wanted to do this for the locals,” says Koji Akaboshi. The Food & beverage Director at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is telling me about the Summer Tasting Series, which is back by popular demand this summer. The lineup of luxe sip-and-graze events combines luxury and fun, and it gives visitors unique access in more ways than one.

The second annual series, which will host three more events through September, is actually part of a refreshing renaissance of the Biltmore food scene. New executive chef Marco Fossati is improving menus, libations are being invented, restaurants are being reinvented – and a movement to reintroduce this legendary resort to its neighbors is definitely on. One of Akaboshi’s contributions has been these monthly Friday-night tasting experiences, held throughout the resort and featuring quality brands.
June's POP! Bubbles event was a sell-out
“I wanted to get away from the traditional sit-down wine dinner, which doesn’t always allow guests to speak casually with winemakers and purveyors,” Akaboshi says. “These tastings are meant to be more accessible, less stuffy and formal, and to give guests the chance to meet with local producers.”
May's event focused on bourbon
This summer’s series kicked off in May with “Master Distillers,” which paired local vodka and bourbon with house-made pastas, signature seafood dishes and dry-aged carpaccio, and which allowed guests to mingle with distillers. This month’s “Pop! Bubbles”—a sell-out – showcased high-end rosé sparkling wines from around the globe, along with oysters chucked to order.
Each of these classy gatherings is held at a unique locale throughout the Biltmore’s opulent 22 acres – a chance for the resort to showcase its various dining rooms, outdoor spaces and event venues. “These are locations usually reserved for weddings or private events,” says Akaboshi, “so it allows guests to discover new spaces and see something totally different.” On July 21, for example, the “Red, White & Brew” tasting will takes place on the Monte Vista Lawn, a lush garden with sweeping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains; a gourmet barbecue will accompany seven local breweries, including Telegraph, Island and Brass Bear.
On August 11th, the resort puts on the Ferragosto Festival, celebrating a bevy of local Italian white wine varieties and an Italian-inspired fritto misto bar; guests will get a rare chance to descend on the oceanfront Coral Casino, with its famous million-dollar views. And on September 22nd, the series culminates with a Harvest Crush on the hotel’s Palmera Garden, an intimate lawn decked out in flagrant flowers and shady palm trees; Santa Barbara winemakers will pour to celebrate the 2017 vintage while resort chefs take on a traditional pig roast.
May's bourbon tasting also featured Chef Fossati's dry-aged carpaccio
Akaboshi, who’s been at the Montecito property for two years and has worked at nine different Four Seasons resorts over the last 20 years, is looking to make the Summer Tasting Series a model for Biltmore events moving forward. “Fun, relevant and approachable, but high quality at the same time,” he says. And he put the spotlight back on locals, who present an ongoing and germane opportunity for a landmark resort like this to grow its clientele.
“They are fans of these winemakers, brewers and distillers, and fans of these local products,” he says. “By bringing them together here, it reminds them what a great spot this is to host an event, have dinner or just hang out and have a drink.”
The views come standard.
Each event is priced at $78, or bundle the remaining three events in the Summer Tasting Series for a discounted $187. Call 805-565-8232 for tickets. And check out fourseasons.com/santabarbara.
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Wine Industry Shakeup: Leader of Santa Barbara's Largest Winery Group Steps Down

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Tenley Fohl and Allison Levine

The head of the Santa Barbara wine industry’s most influential group is stepping down. Morgen McLaughlin has been Executive Director at Santa Barbara Vintners since 2013. After she leaves her post in mid-July, she’ll become Executive Director at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association in Oregon.
Ms. McLaughlin’s impact on the organization that’s an advocate for the majority of Santa Barbara’s wineries – 130 out of the county’s 200 – is undeniable. Some of the changes she drove were small, but important: the group’s relatively new moniker, for example – Santa Barbara Vintners – replaced its more cumbersome predecessor, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. Ms. McLaughlin also pushed for increased training of member wineries in areas like hospitality and responsible beverage service, as well as increased engagement between the local wine industry and Santa Barbara government officials.
Morgen McLaughlin (Fohl photo)
Her greatest strides were, perhaps, in the group’s never-ending effort to increase the visibility of local wine, both domestically and internationally. “Santa Barbara County deserves to be considered as a top wine region in the world,” Ms. McLaughlin said in an exclusive interview this week with the News-Press. “To be a player on that stage, you have to think worldly.”
To that end, she helped spawn a slew of road trip opportunities for Santa Barbara wineries. Sporadic trips to Los Angeles, the holy grail drive market for Santa Barbara wineries, were marked with intimate culinary gatherings at lucrative venues throughout the city. She also took a handful of promotional trips abroad, responding to what she sees as a growing interest by international media and trade “to learn about California wine beyond Napa and Sonoma.”
She adds, “Having to increase the profitability for our tasting rooms versus having a place on the world stage – those are two very different executions. I’m happy with what we did on both those tracks.”
But Ms. McLaughlin’s most vivid memories from her years in Santa Barbara may well be the roadblocks. “The job and its challenges were much greater than I expected,” admits Ms. McLaughlin, 44, who points the finger at local politics and overly aggressive land use restrictions that are squelching the Santa Barbara wine country experience.
“On the surface, the job seems easy,” she says. “This region in one of most well-known parts of the world. You travel, and people salivate when you mention Santa Barbara. You’ve got an amazing location, perfect weather, and wines that run the gamut of style. You think it’s a very easy story to tell. But then you quickly realize how restricted wineries are in land use.”
Indeed, county rules governing development by wineries have long been famously obstructive in Santa Barbara. When winemaker Michael Larner finally won approval last month to build a winery and tasting room on his Ballard Canyon property, for example, it was only after a contentious and expensive seven-year fight. Lawmakers and filibustering neighbors point to issues like traffic and noise while winemakers and advocates like Ms. McLaughlin point to other wine regions’ far less restrictive rubrics. The result? A wine country experience defined mainly by tasting rooms – clustered tasting-only venues in Los Olivos and downtown Santa Barbara, for example – rather than wine estates.
“You can’t remain competitive on the world stage, and you can’t attract serious wine drinkers and connoisseurs, by just having a tasting room-only model,” insists Ms. McLaughlin. “They want to experience a winery, vineyards, dinners in a barrel room – touch and feel! And you have to have a pipeline of new projects.
“The wine industry has not been able to get people into elected office who really understand wine and tourism and agriculture, and the intersection of it all. Until that mentality can evolve, having someone like myself onboard is simply not the best utilization of my skills.”
Ms. McLaughlin also laments the absence of a county tourism office in Santa Barbara.
“You have all these smaller tourism groups – Visit Santa Barbara, Visit Santa Ynez Valley, Visit Santa Maria, Solvang, Buellton, Lompoc – each with their own marketing, board, budget,” she says. “Each plays a part but they’re doing it individually. For Santa Barbara to be competitive against Paso Robles and Sonoma and Napa… they have to pool money to be used collectively and to deliver a cohesive message to the consumer. I spent 2-1/2 years trying to bring these respective associations together and to agree to fund a significant investment in wine tourism, but I wasn’t able to get it done. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see low visitor numbers."
Ms. McLaughlin points to data released just this month by Silicon Valley Bank and Wine Business Monthly that tracked monthly tasting room visitation numbers throughout the U.S. for 2016 and that put Santa Barbara second to last among California regions, just ahead of Mendocino. Paso Robles’ numbers, at 1342 visitors per month, nearly doubled Santa Barbara’s 751 (and rivaled Napa County’s 1497).  To be fair, Paso and Napa are larger than Santa Barbara, and they have more tasting rooms. “But we’re 100 miles from eight million people,” says Ms. McLaughlin, referencing L.A. “We should be leading in visitation numbers. The Santa Barbara caché is just not being tapped.”
Morgen McLaughlin, left, speaks during a 2016 pinot noir trade event at L.A.'s Republique, as winemakers like Palmina's Steve Clifton, Fess Parker's  Blair Fox and Alma Rosa's Richard Sanford look on (Levine photo)
As she turns her sights on Oregon and the 230 wineries she’ll be representing, Ms. McLaughlin’s excitement hinges a lot on how the Willamette Valley is different. “They don’t have land use restrictions. Not to say that as the region grows they won’t be faced by that, but right now they have responsible growth and wineries are able to get permits and host guests,” she says.
“And the focus on pinot noir is refreshing,” she adds. The popular red wine is the most widely planted grape by far in the Willamette Valley, which stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south, and which grows 80% of all the wine in Oregon. “It is, first and foremost, a pinot noir region.” Santa Barbara, on the other hand, while also a coveted pinot noir site, lays claim to growing many other varieties well, too. And while diversity is an interesting story to tell, it’s not an easy one to market.
Ms. McLaughlin will be moving to Portland with her husband, wine distributor Nathaniel Smith, and the youngest of their three sons, who’ll be starting high school in the fall.
Matt Murphy, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Board, says that “while I am sorry to see Morgen go, I could not be happier for her to have the opportunity to lead another world class wine growing region.”
Mr. Murphy says the Board is focused now on filling the Executive Director position, which is garnering “intense interest from people all over the country,” according to Ms. McLaughlin.
“One of the primary headwinds facing our local wine industry is a challenging regulatory environment, including, but not limited to, restrictive land use polices, limiting growth of the Santa Barbara County wine industry,” says Mr. Murphy. “One of the core competencies of the next Executive Director of our association will be to build on our association's successes combatting these regulations and advocating on our behalf at the city and county levels of government.”

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Pet Project: Liquid Farm Winemaker Launches Own Kings Carey Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/17

The newest player in the Santa Barbara wine scene in someone who, actually, has already made a significant mark in it.  James Sparks has been winemaker for the celebrated Liquid Farm label since 2009, crafting beautiful chardonnays that combine fruit from multiple vineyards as a way to encapsulate the Sta. Rita Hills region in each bottle; the about-to-be-released 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay, a blend of six vineyards, is floral and racy. Liquid Farm recently expanded into pinot noir production, too.
But Sparks’ Kings Carey wines are totally new, with the first three bottlings just now hitting the marketplace.  “It can be challenging, finding that balance,” Sparks says of juggling his full-time gig at Liquid Farm with his pet project. But the focus of Kings Carey is precise – grenache only, for now – as a way to both eliminate competition and explore something totally personal.
Sparks’ foray into winemaking is relatively new, itself -- and fascinating, when you consider his background. One of a dozen children raised in rural Idaho, Sparks, 41, left the Mormon religion a little over a decade ago – a totally new way of life, and an introduction to the world of alcohol consumption and creation. His brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, now became an important connection; a former employee at an L.A. wine shop, he’d helped found Dragonette Cellars in 2005, and as the label began its quick climb to becoming one of Santa Barbara’s premiere boutique wine labels, it also became James’ foot in the door.
Serendipity is a powerful thing. But there’s no denying Sparks’ own knack, which saw him transitioning as assistant winemaker at Dragonette to winemaker at Liquid Farm within a year. Just a handful of vintages later, his presence and influence established, Kings Carey becomes Spark's next chapter.
Interestingly, the label’s name pays homage, in part, to Sparks’ upbringing; he hails from Carey, Idaho, a river valley ag town with a population of about 600. “Kings” is a tip of the hat to Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, a marketing whiz from Kings Point, on New York’s Long Island. The pair lives in Solvang with their beautiful three-year-old daughter, Bea.
“Why grenache?” I ask him as we sit and sip. The Kings Carey launch features a 2016 Rosé of grenache, a 2015 Sta. Rita Hills grenache and a 2014 Santa Ynez Valley grenache. I ask him, in part, because word on the street is that grenache, like syrah and other Rhone wines, is a hard sell.
“I want to do what I like, first and foremost,” he says.
Grenache also allows him to explore a new winemaking avenue: whereas Liquid Farm is a study in blends, Kings Carey sheds the spotlight on single varietals and single vineyards, with a push for minimal manipulation and lower alcohols.
The 2016 Rosé ($20) is fresh and juicy, with floral aromas and red berry flavors that scream afternoon sipping. “I love café,” says the winemaker. “It can go with almost anything, from salads to burgers.” The fruit comes from Brick Barn Vineyard, located in the warmer stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.
The 2014 and 2015 reds reveal what grenache can do in cooler environs. Their source is the same: the renowned John Sebastiano Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. But remember the contentious battle a few years ago to expand the boundaries of SRH? This vineyard featured prominently in this fight. Before the feds' approval of the expansion, most of it lived within the AVA, with a small portion spilling into a zone that had to be identified more broadly as Santa Ynez Valley. The 2014 Kings Carey grenache was bottled before the SRH borders were stretched, which requires Sparks to use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA moniker on his label. By the time the 2015 wines were put in bottle, he had the federal government’s blessing to label it, officially, Sta. Rita Hills.
No matter what it says on the label, though, these wines are awesome, although distinct. The 2015 Grenache ($29), harvested a bit earlier in the season, is more youthful, with tangy red berries on the nose and bouncy mouth feel. A lunch red, if you will, or a red you can easily sip as the sun goes down on a warm summer’s day. My favorite, the 2014 Grenache ($29), was picked a bit later and exhibits more depth – more earthy – with red currants, oak, white pepper and even a dab of cocoa, and a luscious finish. More of an evening meal wine, perhaps. Both grenache wines are about 13.5% alcohol and are drinkable now, though they exhibit wonderful aging potential, too.
Another standout element here? The Kings Carey labels, which feature black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphia-based artist Hawk Krall. The hand-drawn images pop and have a hip, urban vibe. Touching again on grenache’s marketplace challenges, Mrs. Sparks, the branding pro, says, “It speaks to the millennial audience that we’re after.”
Find out more at kingscarey.com.

Mexican Dining, Elevated: Santo Mezcal Opens on Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/18/17

For several weeks, Ricardo Garcia put his clientele’s taste buds to the test.  The executive chef at Santa Barbara’s popular Los Agaves began offering daily specials – unique gourmet dishes that weren’t on the Milpas Street restaurant’s standard Mexican food menu, which draws a steady stream of customers daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It was a culinary experiment, of sorts.

Pulpo a las Brasas
“The idea was to give him the ability to create dishes that are creative and that take extra time to prepare,” says his boss, restaurateur Carlos Luna.

The dishes that fared best – the ones that got the most raves from guests – now have starring roles at Santa Barbara’s newest restaurant, Santo Mezcal, which opened in early May on lower State Street.  The new project by Mr. Luna has been more than a year in the works and takes over the spot that has housed other buzzy restaurants in the past, most recently Nuance.  But the best timing for a hit eatery just a block from Stearns Wharf may be now.

“This area is finally revitalized,” says Mr. Luna, 36, during an recent interview.  It’s the lunch hour, and he’s sitting by a large glass door that opens onto State Street, sporadically welcoming patrons he recognizes in both English and Spanish.  “It’s all been construction here, but now – it’s the perfect time to open Santa Mezcal.”

Camarones al Mezcal
For years, the two blocks of State Street between the beach and Gutierrez Street have, in fact, been an area to avoid.  Street closures, construction crews and choppy street patterns have afflicted this zone, and many locals and visitors alike have opted to dine, shop and drive elsewhere.  But summer 2017 is the light at the end of the tunnel here, with the grand opening of a brand new luxury hotel.  Already, the highly-anticipated MOXI Museum, right next door to Santo Mezcal, is welcoming guests daily and several other eateries and wine bars have opened, or are about to.

So, Santa Mezcal becomes the latest fresh arrival in this newly imagined section of Santa Barbara, and its prospects hinge squarely on the dining experience it creates moving forward.

The name pays homage to one of Mexico’s most revered distilled cordials; mezcal enjoys widespread exaltation among its fans as a divine sipping spirit.  Born in the state of Oaxaca, it’s made from the agave plant, just like tequila.  But because it’s roasted in underground ovens covered by earth and rocks, it exhibits a distinctive smoky flavor.  The wall behind the bar at Santo Mezcal houses dozens of mezcal bottles, which are often identified by their village of origin or even the age of the origin agave plant.  Mezcal can be ordered by the shot or in a cocktail, like the Margarita Jamaica ($11), which features spiced hibiscus syrup and hibiscus flowers, or the Sant-Old Fashioned ($12), with add-ins like agave nectar, chocolate-mole bitters and burnt orange essence.  All the flavoring syrups and nectars are made in house by mixologist Sean Sepulveda.

The mescal and tequila selections at the Santo Mezcal bar
The bar also features a comprehensive lineup of tequilas.  The wine list is concise but varied, representing Santa Barbara, mainly, as well as Chile, Argentina and Spain.

The kitchen is enclosed in glass, allowing lunch and dinner patrons to watch the kitchen crew in action.  The focus is on ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonally available, and the menu leans toward the sea.

Margarita Jamaica
Appetizers include several ceviche preparations.  The Ahi Tuna Ceviche ($13.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) features a tangy medley of cucumbers, jicama, cilantro and corn; the salsa that’s folded in gives it a refreshing edge.  The Ceviche Pulpo ($13.95, $14.95) features octopus meat that is remarkably tender, along with onion, cucumbers, avocado and cilantro.

The entrees, dubbed Especiales del Mar, include one of Mr. Luna’s favorites, the Pulpo a las Brasas ($22.95, dinner only).  Two grilled octopus tentacles, marinated in a housemade vegetable stock to ensure a tender bite, comes with a garbanzo bean purée; the chile oil drizzled on top as it’s exiting the kitchen offers each bite a spicy pop.  The Camarones al Mezcal ($14.95, $15.95) features several oversize Mexican shrimp sautéed in a velvety mezcal cream and comes with Mexican rice and salad.  And the Salmon Tropical ($19.95, dinner only) is served over grilled pineapple and topped with mango salsa and grilled shrimp.

House specialty dishes – the Especiales de la Casa – are hearty, like the veal osso bucco Chamorro ($18.95, $19.95) and the Cazuela Poblana, with grilled chicken and pasilla peppers topped with Oaxaca cheese.  Meat lovers will eye the off-the-grill specials, which feature ribeye steak in myriad preparations and served with sides like cheese-stuffed pasilla peppers and crab enchiladas. There are several taco and enchilada entrees on the menu, as well as one- and two-item combination plates.

Several of the dishes are vegetarian and gluten-free, by design.  “We really wanted to give those customers a lot of good options,” says Mr. Luna, “which is easy to do with Mexican cuisine, because it’s so fresh.”  Dishes will be rotated regularly, too, “to give customers more reasons to come back."

Ahi Tuna Ceviche
Food aside, the reason to return for many patrons will be Mr. Luna, himself.  The restaurateur who founded Los Agaves on Milpas Street just nine years ago and who’s grown the enterprise to four bustling locations (in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Westlake Village) is known as the consummate host.  His demeanor is understated, although the numerous interactions with patrons and even passers-by during this interview points to a personality that’s much larger.  Mr. Luna makes a point of mentioning his regulars.  “These are people who gave us a chance,” he says.  ““Local support is what keeps us going."

Dining at Santo Mezcal?  Look for free 75-minute parking at the city lot by the Amtrak station, just up State Street.

Santo Mezcal, 119 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-883-3593. @santomezcal_sb on Instagram.