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.
Eat: Convivo: 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
Eat: 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
Drink: Angel Oak: 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
Visit: Fishermen’s Market: Show up early to this Saturday market, held on the Santa Barbara pier, to buy rockfish, king crab and sea urchin direct from fishermen.cfsb.info/sat
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.
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.
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.
Looking for a meal that’s fresh off the boat? You’ve come to the right place. Here’s a spotter’s guide to the seafood that should grace your plate while you’re in Santa Barbara.
This smaller relative of the Alaskan King Crab can be found on the Pacific Coast.
These beauties are known and netted for pink shells and firm white meat.
Prized for buttery innards, hidden beneath hundreds of barbed spines.
Similar to a red snapper, this California staple is known for its pinkish-red hue.
Though there isn’t a huge market for these spiral-shelled sea snails, their meat can brighten a stir-fry.