The Table is Set: New Dining Concept at Santa Barbara Wine Country's Ballard Inn Hinges on Shareable Dishes

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Tenley Fohl
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/31/17

The Gathering Table
Chef Budi Kazali’s latest culinary project was actually 13 years in the making.
“We knew right from the start that we would want to do a remodel,” says Mr. Kazali, who, with wife Chris, bought the Ballard Inn & Restaurant in 2004. “But when you’re open 364 days a year – every day except Christmas – there’s never a good time to stop.”
Remodel or not, the Kazalis’ property in the historic Ballard Township, close to Los Olivos and Solvang, has become a destination all its own over the years. The inn, with its 15 uniquely themed rooms, all with plush bedding and lovely country décor, is one of the top-rated places to stay in the Santa Ynez Valley. And the restaurant, with a season-centric menu and region-centric wine list, and with Mr. Kazali’s notable reputation, is one of the very few AAA 4-Diamond restaurants in Santa Barbara County.
Today, the property is finally enjoying a facelift.
The couple took a leap of faith earlier this year when they shut down for 17 days. The focus was almost entirely downstairs; the rooms, most all on the second floor, had seen sporadic upgrades over the years. This overhaul focused on the inn’s reception area and living room, and in particular on the restaurant’s dining room. “It was complete chaos,” laughs Mr. Kazali, recalling the round-the-clock project that had construction teams working overtime and even living at the inn. The toughest phase was the flooring. “After it was waxed and stained, there was no standing on it for five days – it halted everything!”
The revamped dining room at the Ballard Inn
The new and improved Ballard Inn & Restaurant features a succinctly fresher feel, with a muted palette of colors and elegant furnishings. Quaintness and comfort prevail, though, “in that wonderful New England bed-and-breakfast style that Chris and I love,” says Mr. Kazali.
The crowning jewel of the project is Chef Kazali’s reimagined restaurant, which he’s deliberately dubbed, The Gathering Table. “We wanted a dining concept based on food that’s shareable,” he says. “It’s the way I like to eat: I want to try every plate that comes out!”
The eatery’s centerpiece communal table fits up to 14 people, “perfect for a large party,” says the chef. “But when we’re seating different guests, we only serve up to eight, so it doesn’t get too cramped.”  The rest of the 40-seat dining room features round tables and booths, but the white linens are gone. “We’ve gone more cozy, less fine dining. More casual and even kid-friendly. We don’t want to be labeled as a once-a-year spot but, instead, a place guests and local can visit a few times a month.”
The new menu, which mirrors the chef’s famous knack for Asian-French fusion, is arranged from lighter to heartier dishes. Portions are smaller – five to six ounces, generally – to encourage not only sharing, but also personalizing. “A couple can create their own tasting menu and order, maybe, five things off the menu,” says Mr. Kazali. “A larger party can really have fun by ordering a lot of different things.” And prices have been brought down.
Grilled Filet Mignon
Desserts rotate regularly
Among the new highlights at The Gathering Table: Oysters on the Half Shell ($24 a dozen); Cheese Fondue ($7); Manila Clams with chorizo and garlic toast ($13); Octopus Sashimi with squid ink vinaigrette and spicy yuzu aioli ($15); and Sliders with white cheddar, housemade pickles and shoestring potatoes ($7 each).

Chef Budi Kazali
Several signature Kazali dishes, including larger stand-along entrees, remain, like his Hamachi with avocado and soy vinaigrette ($15); a Pork Belly with Napa cabbage fondue ($14); the Hudson Valley foie gras with caramelized cherry and port glaze ($18); the Duck Breast with spring vegetable medley ($22); and his Marinated Hanger Steak with spicy charrd Brussel sprouts ($23). The kitchen, which Chef Kazali shares with three longtime cooks, also features daily specials. And the chef’s well-known predilection for what’s fresh, including working with regional purveyors and visiting farmers’ markets weekly, continues.
The new menu, though, has allowed Mr. Kazali to “move away from more traditional cooking, like always having to do starches and sauces,” and create dishes that are lighter and that allow guests to experiment.
“People have become more conscientious about what they’re eating,” says the chef.  “They understand food more and they ask all the right questions. It’s good -- it keeps me on my toes and makes me push the envelope.”
The shareable slant to the food has also spurred greater interest in wines-by-the-glass. “Guests can try different wines as they order more things – it’s very pairing-driven,” says Mr. Kazali, who’s managing the wine list until a sommelier joins the team. The beverage program at The Gathering Table includes signature cocktails and premium sake, though the wine list remains Santa Barbara-inspired; about 80% of the rotating selection is local.
The Gathering Table at The Ballard Inn, 2436 Baseline Dr., Ballard. 805-688-7770. Wednesday-Sunday 5:30-9pm.
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Celebrating Grenache: Kaena Throws Gourmet Bash in Favorite Grape’s Honor

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/14/17

Mikael Sigouin is proud of his title, Grenache King.
“I didn’t name myself, it was my peers,” he admits. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve worked with more grenache than most people in the state.”
The Oahu native began his love affair with the Rhone grape (and the most widely planted red wine grape in the world) in 1999, his first harvest at Santa Barbara’s Beckmen Vineyards. He speaks of grenache in devotional terms: “It deserves to be shown respect. Even if you think you’re doing everything right, you still need to nudge things in her direction, where she wants to go. Just like with any woman. And it has the greatest payoff in the world.”

The Grenache King
Sigouin attributes an upbringing shaped in large part by affectionate women, and by a pervasive respect for women, for his kinship with grenache. Many of his peers, he suggests, don’t have the necessary patience to allow grenache to reach its full potential. It can be so prolific, “they plant it in hot places and let it grow and grow to use as a bulk wine producer,” he says. Sigouin’s hands-on vineyard approach includes dropping two-thirds of his fruit to allow the best grapes to grow, regularly manicuring and picking late in the season. “It’s a waiting game, it takes patience,” he insists. And when you give grenache all the time it deserves, “the skins thin out, color comes out, you get that beautiful character of the tannins and this great texture and minearality.”
Sigouin launched his label, Kaena (Hawaiian for “potential for greatness"), in 2001; after juggling stints at both Fess Parker and Beckmen (as head winemaker), he went full time with his pet project in 2014. He now makes about 5000 cases of wine a year, including a grenache blanc, a grenache rosé and eight different grenaches, most of them vineyard-specific. “I’ve isolated some places that grow really great grenache,” says the winemaker. That's important, because the flavors of grenache very much reflect the site where it grows, he says. “Ballard Canyon, between Buellton and the 154 – that’s the sweet spot. Not too hot, not too cool, just right.”

It makes perfect sense, then, that Kaena would consider International Grenache Day a legit holiday. It celebrates it in style each year, and this year’s fete with Jeff Olsen at Buellton noshing hot spot Industrial Eats fires on all gastronomic cylinders. It takes place Friday, September 15, at 7pm, and just a handful of $100 tickets remain. Get yours at
After Sigouin insisted that “pork and grenache is the ultimate pairing,” I got a sneak peek at Chef Olsen’s six-course menu:  oyster, uni and avocado paired with Kaena’s 2016 grenache blanc (a wine so tasty, “it makes you salivate,” says Sigouin); tomatoes, melon, green chile and grilled ciabatta bread matched with the 2016 grenache rosé; pork shoulder in a Korean bossam style with gems, herbs and kimchi, along with the 2015 Santa Ynez Valley grenache;  achiote and orange-braised pork with avocado, queso fresco and corn tortillas, with the 2015 Tierra Alta grenache; pomegranate-grilled pork ribs with rosemary and roasted peppers, coupled with the 2015 Ali’i grenache; and warm chocolate soufflé cake for dessert, with chocolate-Nutella ice cream and the unctuous 2015 Larner Vineyard grenache.
You can’t go wrong with Olsen in the kitchen; check him out at
And all the wines are on store shelves now, including the popular Kaena tasting room in Los Olivos.
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Four Eateries Under One Roof: “Scratch” Reveals Dining Concepts for Montecito Inn

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Jakob Layman
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/7/17

“Not much of what we do is typical,” admits Philip Frankland Lee, chef-owner of Los Angeles-based ScatchlRestaurants. It’s a mantra that has served him and his partner-wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee, well in the last few years, and which speaks to the imaginative slant to the way they do business.
“It doesn’t cost any more to have an original idea,” he adds.
The buzzed-about chef’s star has been rising steadily since the couple launched their latest their multi-layered endeavor in Encino in 2015. Four restaurants in all – four storefronts connected through the back – including the marquee eatery, ScratchlBar, where chefs playing servers drives a personalized experience and where tasting menus can feature 25 courses. As the name implies, most everything on the menu is made by hand and from scratch. The couple also runs Frankland’s Crab & Co., Woodley Proper and SushilBar, all on the second floor of a strip mall along Ventura Blvd.
“Instead of one giant space it’s four spaces of different sizes, four different styles and four different levels of commitment,” says Chef Lee. “It reminds me of a great hotel in South Beach or Las Vegas where you go in and have several restaurants on the first floor. I like that.”
Philip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee 
The Lees are hoping the concept will translate just as successfully to Montecito, where, between now and the end of the year, they plan to premier four unique concepts inside the Montecito Inn. The 2500-square-foot bar and eatery spaces that flank the historic hotel’s entrance along Coast Village Road have been closed and covered up to walkers-by for more than a year. This will be the culinary couple’s first business venture outside of L.A., though not entirely in unfamiliar territory. “I grew up and went to high school in the San Fernando Valley,” says Mr. Lee, 30, “and I remember spending quite a bit of time in Santa Barbara.”
The Lees are revealing their four concepts in stages, beginning later this month with the second outpost for Frankland’s Crab & Co. Located inside the inn’s former cocktail bar, this casual spot will be accessible from the street and will feature standards like “peel-and-eat shrimp, lobster rolls, crab rolls, clam chowder and fried chicken sandwiches,” says Chef Lee. “Like a Malibu or county line crab shack.” Food, ordered via walk-up counter, will be for dine-in or take-out.
"Scratch" in the works at the Montecito Inn (my pic)
October will see the launch of The Monarch inside the longtime former home of The Montecito Café, just off the hotel’s lobby. Breakfast, lunch and dinner items will focus on Central Coast vegetables, seafood and game and will be complemented a regionally focused wine list and by cocktails prepped at a newly built 40-foot bar. The Monarch will also handle room service for Montecito Inn guests.
Margarita’s Home Made Iced Cream will open in October, too, a pet project of Mrs. Kallas-Lee, an accomplished pastry chef. Orders will be taken at a counter inside The Monarch as well as through a walk-up window along Coast Village Road. “I envision ice cream as a composed dish: the sprinkles complement the ice cream, which complements the cone,” says Mrs. Kallas-Lee, 28, who plans on featuring eight different types of cones. “And everything will be made from scratch and with natural ingredients. Like the sprinkles – things like beet powder and lavender oil and a little charcoal for color.” Among her sweet creations: chocolate ganache ice cream on a chocolate cone with dulce de leche sprinkles; roasted plantain ice cream in a corn cone with corn sprinkles; and triple-crème camembert ice cream in a sourdough waffle cone with sourdough breadcrumbs, wild honey and lavender sprinkles.
“There will be standards, but I like focusing on ingredients not usually highlighted in desserts,” she says.
Lobster rolls at Frankland's Crab & Co. in Encino
The Lees are most tight-lipped about their final concept, due in late December. The Silver Bough will focus on luxury dining – “The French Laundry for Santa Barbara,” says Chef Lee – with only 16 seats and only two seatings per night. Located in a space toward the back of the hotel and not visible from the street, the fine dining venue will require reservations up to a month in advance and will give seating preference to inn guests.
The couple, who’ve been married for five years, is living at the Montecito Inn while their latest enterprise unfolds. They admit their vision is ambitious but believe it’s in synch with today’s foodie culture, and therefore timely. “Ten year ago, it was difficult to eat well, then it was expensive,” says Chef Lee. “Now, eating well is more convenient and very much in fashion.” And the pair sees their arrival in Montecito as a partnership with nearby restaurants, not as a rivalry. “We don’t look at it as competition because no one is serving the same food as we are,” says the chef. “The more successful and the stronger the restaurant community, the better we’re all going to do.”
For up to date information, check out
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Driving Demand: In Santa Barbara Wine Country, a Lunch Spot on Wheels

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/10/17

The hottest new spot for lunch in Los Olivos is actually on four wheels.

The First & Oak Food Truck rolled into town in May. It’s an extension of the culinary offering by Chef Steven Snook and his team at First & Oak, the Solvang restaurant that’s easily become one of the most buzzed about places for dinner in the Santa Ynez Valley. Chef Snook, who worked under celeb chef Gordon Ramsay in London and New York before moving to the West Coast, is celebrating two years at First & Oak next month.
“The ingredients, the processing, the methodology are foundationally the same,” says Chef Snook, comparing his food truck fare against the fine dining experience at First & Oak. “The final product on the truck, though, is more approachable and simple.”
The food truck is all about crepes right now. The savory selections are most popular with the lunchtime crowds, Chef Snook says, with options like braised beef short rib and fried chicken with gravy. “We treat the crepe as a vessel rather than a standalone item,” says the chef, acknowledging that the French culinary staple is a far newer concept to many wine country visitors. A First & Oak crepe is perforated and shaped like a cone, which allows it to be stuffed with myriad ingredients. “We’re taking the basic crepe concept and expanding it to make it more fun and engaging."
Chef Steven Nook (credit: Tenley Fohl)
Sweet selections include ice cream, caramelized bananas with candied hazelnuts and roasted peanut butter with dulce de leche and chocolate “We’ve also got our take on the great American cherry pie,” says the chef, an English native. “Cherry pie filling with crushed graham crackers and a white wine reduction.”
The focus on crepes is a tip of the hat to Bernard Rosenson, the Southern California restaurateur who owns First & Oak and the Mirabelle Hotel in Solvang where it’s housed, along with popular Sky Room restaurant in Long Beach. “He grew up in France, and crepes were one of his favorite childhood foods,” says his son, Jonathan, who helps manage all of the family businesses.
The Rosensons also own the Coquelicot wine tasting room in Los Olivos, which serendipitously, if not cleverly, allows them to circumvent some of the famously restrictive county rules about where food trucks can set up shop that have already driven other eateries-on-wheels out of town. The truck is parked on the Coquelicot patio, which is private property.
“In fact, we encourage folks to come enjoy their crepes at the tasting room, and we give them 20% off wine flights or bottles,” says the younger Rosenson. Coquelicot features organic estate wines, from Riesling to cabernet sauvignon and a variety of blends; its sister label, the smartly dubbed Rose & Son, is a project by Jonathan Rosenson that features fresh, approachable, more affordable wines.
The truck serves guests on weekends – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from about 11am to about 4pm. It’s equipped to do more, though. This is a converted 25-passenger bus that was gutted, reframed with steel and outfitted with brand new restaurant equipment: two crepe wheels, a grill, ovens, burners, a deep fryer, a salamander broiler and refrigeration and freezer space. That means the truck is available during the week for catering, and Chef Snook and his team have already cooked at rehearsal dinners, concerts, festivals and a bevy of winery and estate events from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria.
One of Chef Snook's savory crepes
With the success of crepes – the truck can dole out up to 150 on a good day – Chef Snook is already working on expanding the food truck menu – French boulangerie-style items, like salads and croc monsieurs. All the while, he’s conscientious about his gastronomic neighbors. “I don’t want to step on anyone else’s toes,” says the chef. “We’re not introducing direct competition but, rather, expanding the variety available to visitors.”
The unique appeal of the First & Oak truck, though, the only semi-permanent food truck in the Santa Ynez Valley, is undeniable. “It’s an easy walk-up and within minutes you have lunch in your hands and you’re off again,” says Chef Snook. “It’s quick and easy, and it’s pretty filling.”
First & Oak Food Truck at the Coquelicot Estate Vineyard tasting room, 2884 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos. 805-688-1500.
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SAMsARA Sold: Boutique Label Brings on Popular Santa Barbara Winemaker

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/31/17

In 2002, the very first wine column I ever wrote – a regular guy’s foray into the world of wine in Santa Barbara – was about a brand new pet project called SAMsARA. Ever since, this small, hands-on label founded by Chad and Mary Melville has stayed the course, producing complex wines with a focus on fruit source and quality, and it has gained steady critical acclaim. Last week, SAMsARA entered a new chapter, as it was sold for an undisclosed sum to long-time club members, Joan and Dave Szkutak.
SAMsARA is a Sanskrit word that, on its website, the founders define as, “The eternal circle of life… one of passion, oneness and harmony.”
SAMsARA winemaker Matt Brady (credit: Andrew Schoneberger)
The brand “was born before our children were even born, so I couldn’t imagine SAMsARA living on under someone else’s ownership,” said Chad Melville in the press release that announced the sale. “But when Joan and Dave expressed an interest in getting into the wine business, the idea of a sale began to take shape. They’re big fans of Santa Barbara County wines and have been dedicated SAMsARA customers for years”
New ownership, though, also brings something familiar to SAMsARA: winemaker Matt Brady. The 34-year-old has garnered his own following ever since he landed his first wine industry gig at Jaffurs Wine Cellars in 2005, when he was still at UCSB. He was promoted to co-winemaker in 2012 and to head winemaker in 2015. Brady left Jaffurs this past March.
“There was this organic, really good feeling about the whole thing,” says Brady about the few months that followed, when he explored opportunities with Chad Melville and heard that the Szkutaks, whom he knew well as long-time customers at Jaffurs, were eyeing a buy. “Everyone involved felt early on that we were moving in the right direction.”
I asked Brady this week about the viability of boutique Santa Barbara labels like SAMsARA, several of which have also changed hands in recent years: Brewer-Clifton was bought up by Kendall-Jackson in May; and Jaffurs, itself, was sold by founder Craig Jaffurs to winemaker Dan Green last year.
“Does it all boil down to affording all the necessary resources?” I ask.
“Yes, but the most important resource in Chad’s case was time, especially with his increased role at Melville,” says Brady. In fact, Chad Melville became full-time winemaker at celebrated Melville Winery, which was founded by his dad Ron in 1989, when longtime winemaker Greg Brewer left two years ago. “It can be hard to give everything the time it needs, and we all saw this sale as an opportunity to give more focus to the SAMsARA brand.”
SAMsARA produces pinot noir from multiple lauded estates, like Cargassachi and Rancho la Vina, as well as vineyard-specific grenache and syrah wines from properties like Larner and Melville. Prices range from $24 to $60 per bottle. As for the SAMsARA style, Brady says it’ll remain intact: “Savory, meaty, spicy stuff from cool-climate sites that exhibit real elegance. Lots of whole clusters, minimal handling in the cellar and a long time in barrel. Powerful wines with lots of body, texture and aromatics.”
One thing is new:  “We’re starting a chardonnay program this year,” says Brady, who harvested chard from John Sebastiano Vineyard and Zotovich Vineyards, both in Sta. Rita Hills, just this week. “I’m really excited because my goal is to make chardonnay in the style I want to drink: all neutral oak, acid-driven but big on texture and body.”
SAMsARA has a tasting room in Los Olivos, at 2446 Alamo Pintado Avenue, which is open Thursday through Monday. Find out more at
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