The waters around Santa Barbara are producing sustainable catches that are challenging patrons and restaurant owners to ride a new wave of cooking and dining.
“This is an incredibly productive area of coastline with respect to seafood,” says Doug Bush, owner of a commercial abalone farm along the edge of Dos Pueblos Creek, 20 minutes west of downtown Santa Barbara. It’s here on the Californian coast that the colder waters of the north Pacific meet warmer currents from Mexico to form a welcoming habitat for grey, blue and humpback whales, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, ridgeback shrimp, spiny lobsters and a veritable constellation of colourful fish. How times have changed: since an oil spill in 1969 the waters here, as well as the fishing industry, have enjoyed a thorough scrubdown in favour of quality, choice and sustainability.
Arriving at the end of a dirt road at Dos Pueblos Creek, you’re greeted by long, canopied rows of tanks containing the farm’s prized output: Californian red abalone, a delicacy that attracts buyers from San Diego all the way to North Vancouver. “It’s still a developing market,” says Bush of his prized sea snails. “We’re trying to show people that this can be a California-centric ingredient.” One chef at the Ritz-Carlton next door swears by tossing the molluscs in a rich beurre blanc sauce and draping them on a bed of homemade tagliatelle. Local pride is one thing but this is a model of sustainable eating too. To feed the abalone, Bush harvests naturally abundant kelp (he keeps a 40ft fishing boat in the harbour).
Santa Barbara is one of the most affluent postcodes in California and the relatively high incomes of its residents have allowed seafood producers to specialise, which has tempted some of the nation’s best chefs to start businesses and experiment in the area. In 2019, Peter McNee began serving obscure box crab (so called for its ability to retract its legs and resemble a neat, if spiky, package) at Convivo, a breezy, upscale restaurant inside the Santa Barbara Inn. The unassuming brownish-grey critters aren’t on traditional menus but they’re abundant along the ocean floor 30km off the coast. For McNee, who serves them in a rich cioppino (stew) with diced tomatoes and mussels, this obscurity is the appeal: the use of box crab makes dishes such as this unique to Santa Barbara and diners must travel here to enjoy them.
The source of McNee’s catch is Chris Voss, a mainstay of Santa Barbara’s tight-knit fishing community. Voss has spent the past 25 years selling abalone, sea urchins, rock crabs and lobsters to local and international buyers. The opportunity to fetch a premium price for something as incidental as box crab didn’t exist five years ago, he says. “There weren’t chefs like Peter who value that direct connection. Patrons didn’t sit down at his table and pay a higher price for a dish of locally caught crab.”
Now things are changing. At Sushi Bar Montecito, a newly opened 10-seat omakase room that feels plucked right out of Tokyo, head chef Lennon Lee uses shellfish from the region’s warmish waters whenever he can. As a result, the 17-course meal might incorporate uni (the Japanese name for urchin or, more specifically, its gonads) or matcha-salted spot prawns, a delicacy associated with Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, diners at The Lark on Anacapa Street have been tucking into a new dish dubbed the Santa Barbara Wild Catch. It sounds a little ambiguous but that’s the point. Texas-born chef Jason Paluska says that the unpredictability of working with wild fish – which during a single night could rotate between halibut, white sea bass or king salmon – means that he doesn’t always know what he’s offering until the morning of service. He typically puts in the call to fishermen the night before and then waits to find out what the ocean offers. “It’s panic for me between 23.00 and 09.00,” he says, somewhat bashfully. For all the inconveniences of sourcing seafood in this way, there’s no denying that Santa Barbara fishermen have found a receptive audience. “In general, younger customers are more interested in eating fish than the previous generation,” says Kim Selkoe, co-founder of Get Hooked, a new Santa Barbara community-based fishery programme with 25 pick-up sites around town. In addition to robust appetites for ingredients such as black cod, California yellowtail and sea urchin, Selkoe says that the trend of buying local has given the business, which launched last year, a leg up. “Seafood is notoriously hard to access and to trust or to know where it came from,” says Selkoe.
It’s hard to believe that in a place like Santa Barbara, home to more than half of underwater species deemed fishable by the state of California, finding a quality piece of fish had been tricky for years. In the US more generally the stats are even gloomier: more than 90 per cent of the seafood consumed here is imported from other countries.
Despite this, the Santa Barbara Channel shows some hope for how a sustainable fishing business could work. Wedged between the coast and an archipelago of four rugged islands (Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Anacapa), it’s known for its biodiversity. For fishermen this means rich pickings and not having to rely on a single fishery in order to make a living. Instead, catchers can be nimble – one moment focusing on spiny lobster and spot prawns, the next turning to the channel’s abundant stocks of white sea bass, yellowtail or lingcod. No conglomerate controls the fishing pier at Santa Barbara: with the fishing hoist and icehouse made public, fishermen have the freedom to sell how and where they want. Further up the coast, formerly busy port cities such as Fort Bragg and Newport haven’t been so lucky. But an independent, do-it-yourself spirit defines the fishing culture in Santa Barbara.
It’s this entrepreneurial lure that brings 67-year-old fisherman Paul Teall to the weekly fish market every Saturday; that and the chance to sell his product directly to customers. Over the past decade, the market has grown to account for 40 per cent of his business, a significant chunk when you consider that fishermen like him typically rely on middlemen to get their product out to the world. But with the rise of farmers’ markets, people are putting a higher premium on fresh seafood.
Customers arrive at the pier from 06.00 to inspect tubs of rockfish, rock crabs and whelks hauled from around San Miguel Island during the night. “I got in at midnight on Friday, unloaded to a buyer, was in bed by 01.00 and up at 03.00 to get to the market,” says Teall without a hint of weariness or spite. “That’s my life,” he adds with a smile.
With a spacious patio overlooking the Santa Barbara harbour, this restaurant is an appealing, low-lit affair. Chef Peter McNee makes inventive use of the daily catch, ranging from whole-roasted vermillion rock fish to cioppino.
901 E Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara, 93103
Sushi Bar Montecito At this 10-seat, omakase-style Japanese sushi bar, Spanish bluefin and Santa Barbara uni are served one bite at a time.
1295 Coast Village Road, Montecito, 93108
Perched high above the Santa Barbara coastline, this contemporary steakhouse offers abalone and a 12,000-bin wine collection.
8301 Hollister Avenue, Santa Barbara, 93117
Show up early to this Saturday market, held on the Santa Barbara pier, to buy rockfish, king crab and sea urchin direct from fishermen.
Cleaning up its act
On 28 January 1969 an explosion at Union Oil’s Platform A, 10km off the coast of Santa Barbara, sent the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of crude oil flowing into the pristine blue waters. Beaches in Santa Barbara were the first to be hit and the event was, at the time, the worst oil spill in US history. The catastrophe woke up Californians, and the rest of the country, to the way industry can impact our environment. Today the waters here are clean and seafood is both safe and sought after.
Facing demolition, the Dai-ichi Bank building had seen better days. But at the 11th hour, and with a nod to its illustrious past, the site has been rejuvenated as K5 hotel.
It wasn’t so long ago that an empty building in the middle of Tokyo was fit for one thing only: demolition. That was also set to be the fate of the Dai-ichi Bank building in Kabutocho, an overlooked neighbourhood not far from the Imperial Palace. The structure, which dates back to 1923, had even been stripped in preparation for its demise. But then developers Heiwa Real Estate, who also own the Tokyo Stock Exchange next door, had a change of heart and hired designers and founds tenants to transform the stately old gent into a new development called K5. All in just 14 months.
“At the beginning, this project was going to be just a hotel,” says Akihito Takano from Heiwa Real Estate. “But as it went on, we came up with the idea of a ‘micro complex’.” So, in addition to the 20-room hotel, there’s also a café, restaurant, library bar and basement beer bar, each one run by a leader in their field.
The core production team is a young trio – Takahiro Honma, Akihiro Matsui and Yuta Oka – who have come together to create a new firm called Ferment. They worked with Tokyo design entrepreneur Teruo Kurosaki, who called on his old acquaintances, Stockholm architecture firm Claesson Koivisto Rune, to tackle the building. “It’s rare to find these old classical-style buildings in Tokyo,” says the company’s co-founder Eero Koivisto. “It wouldn’t be unusual in Stockholm or London but this is one of the few buildings that survived the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 firebombing.”
“Nobody had really noticed the building or thought of doing anything with it,” says Ola Rune, Koivisto’s colleague. “You have a highway on one side and the Tokyo Stock Exchange on the other.” But when Koivisto, Rune and Mårten Claesson visited, they could immediately see the potential. “We could see that it was beautifully proportioned,” says Claesson. “Very Western neo classical but also super Japanese in its detailing – or rather lack of detailing.” The guest rooms are large by Tokyo standards and make full use of the building’s big windows. There are traces of the old building throughout: the original oak parquet floor survives in the restaurant and the corridors are preserved in a state of pleasing imperfection – even the old builders’ marks have been kept for posterity. To complement the original features, the architects designed 20 new pieces for the hotel – from the 7 metre-long oak table for the restaurant to a pencil that’s made in Japan. They worked with Japanese company Time & Style on the furniture and young carpentry firm adx lined the bedroom and corridor walls with cedar veneer.
The interior is an imaginative mix with plenty of craftsmanship: hand-dyed curtains, custom-crafted floor tiles in a blue hue inspired by Kyoto’s Katsura Imperial Villa and unlacquered copper on the elevator walls, which will acquire a patina over time.“Hotel rooms tend to be soulless and standardised,” says Claesson. “We’ve tried to avoid that: this is more like a real home that has been formed over years.”
The restaurant, Caveman, is a spin-off of the much-admired Scandi-Japanese restaurant Kabi in Meguro blending influences from Japan, France and Denmark. Top marks go to the morning brunch, which includes fresh bread from Tokyo bakery Vaner, a selection of homemade jams, smoked butter, house pancetta and fluffy egg soufflés. Dinner at Caveman is also very popular.
Elsewhere, a café is run by Meguro roasters Switch Coffee, whose owner Masahiro Onishi is an old friend of the Kabi crew. “I first heard about this project in April last year when Shohei [Yasuda] dropped into my coffee shop and told me that he was opening in a new location and asked if I could join in,” says Onishi. “And here I am.” The basement is a first taproom for New York’s Brooklyn Brewery. A snug cocktail bar and library is the work of seasoned bartender Soran Nomura and Kai Tanaka, who owns another popular Tokyo spot called The Open Book. Inspired by Eiichi Shibusawa, who founded the Tokyo Stock Exchange, this bar, Ao, has an erudite book collection and serves tea during the day. “Not just green tea either,” says Nomura. “Japanese black teas and other teas from Taiwan, Vietnam and around Asia.” At night the menu moves on to cocktails. “I’m thinking about an oolong-tea-infused gin and tonic,” he says.
While Kabutocho has many appealing qualities, green space isn’t one of them. The hotel compensates with an abundance of potted plants, spectacular specimens sourced by Yardworks, a nursery founded by Kei Amano in Yamanashi. “I can’t think of another hotel with trees in the bedrooms,” says Rune.
Heiwa Real Estate isn’t stopping with K5. It has a number of properties nearby and plans to continue working on this historic area’s revitalisation.“It’s great to see another part of Tokyo,” says Rune. “Whenever we come here we’re in Roppongi or Aoyama. But while doing this project I’ve been staying here. For me it’s a new Tokyo – and I love that.”
From east to west
K5 is in Nihonbashi, Kabutocho, an area that was at the heart of Japan’s rush for westernisation in the 19th century. The Tokyo Stock Exchange was founded here and so too were the country’s first banks.
The history of the wider area stretches back centuries. More recently, Mitsui Fudosan has been sprucing up the area, which is full of shopping and eating options. Its modern look is deceiving: there are many famous and historic businesses here.
The name Nihonbashi refers to a bridge, originally built at the beginning of the 17th century and considered the starting point of five major roads heading out of Tokyo. The current bridge dates from 1911. Plans are afoot to remove the tangle of expressways that run above it.
The Tokyo outpost of a maker of chochin (lanterns) in Gifu in central Japan. Its best-known products are the Akari paper shades designed by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
1-2-6 Nihonbashi-ningyocho ozeki-lantern.com
There is always a small crowd at this popular shrine, which is believed to bring luck to those who pray there.
16-23 Nihonbashi-koamicho koamijinja.or.jp
This Western-style Japanese restaurant has been a fixture since 1931. Expect all the classics: omuraisu (rice omelette), Hamburg steak and crab-cream croquette. Go up to the fifth floor of this building to find the compact Kite Museum.
1-12-10 Nihonbashi taimeiken.co.jp
Bank of Japan
There are plenty of interesting buildings relating to the neighbourhood’s financial pedigree, among them the old building of the Bank of Japan, built in 1896.
2 Chome-1-1 Nihonbashi-hongokucho boj.or.jp
This classic department store – Japan’s first – opened in 1904. It was recently given a makeover by Kengo Kuma.
1-4-1 Nihonbashi-muromachi mitsukoshi.mistore.jp/nihombashi
Founded in 1806, this shop with 200 years of history and a long association with the art world, specialises in Japanese washi paper, postcards, fans and chiyogami paper boxes and notebooks.
2-7-1 Nihonbashi haibara.co.jp
Mitsui Memorial Museum
Housed inside the Mitsui Main Building, this museum showcases the Mitsui family collection of Japanese art. Among the 4,000 pieces are paintings, calligraphy, tea utensils and Noh costumes.
2-1-1 Nihonbashi-muromachi mitsui-museum.jp
The modern exterior might suggest otherwise but Kiya is an old business: it has been selling kitchen knives since the 1790s (when Tokyo’s fish market was in the neighbourhood). The place to come for serious professional knives and easier stainless-steel ones, plus pots and utensils too.
2-2-1 Nihonbashi-muromachi kiya-hamono.co.jp
Travel and retail round-up
From a hot-spring retreat to new openings in LA by way of Ho Chi Minh City, we bring you the headlines in hospitality and retail.
Two hours’ drive from Tokyo, the mountainous Kanagawa town of Yugawara near the Pacific Ocean is a popular onsen hot-spring retreat. Its ryokan inns and natural landscape have long attracted the city crowd looking to unwind.
Miwa Yugawara, open since December, is the latest addition to the scene and comes courtesy of hospitality firm Miwa Group. “I wanted to create a great hybrid of ryokan and hotel,” says chairman Hiroshi Kubota. The three-storey onsen hotel has 17 rooms, which all come with an outdoor bath and views of the surrounding woodland. Guests can sip fine drinks (think Japanese whisky) at the serene eight-seat bar. For dinner, a top-floor restaurant serves Japanese-Italian delicacies. The hotel has all the right ingredients: natural materials such as unvarnished oak floors; the right sort of low lighting and finely crafted furniture throughout.