Maybe you have a distant memory of going to a “fancy” restaurant when relatives were in town or a cousin was off to college. There were white tablecloths, a jacketed waiter and “continental’ specials. The kitchen somehow came up with kid’s plates that weren’t on the menu, and the staff had been there forever. Oh, yes, and the adults could order a handmade cocktail for the occasion. It was family-friendly in a kind of stuffy way. You dressed up a little and Shirley Temples were a house drink.
Very few such places exist any more, but Carpineteria, yes, that little town 10 minutes south of Montecito and lacking an upscale hotel, pier or restaurant scene of much description, has one. It’s not in its 60th year of operation, however, only its third, helmed by James Sly, a long time chef who made Montecito’s Lucky’s steakhouse what it is today. You kind of only find this place if you live near there or someone tells you about it. And don’t worry, it won’t be closing due to lack of interest. Sly’s (www.slysonline.com) has its followers who make sure the place is not empty. Here is where you’ll get Blue Plate specials of American classics like pot pie and meat loaf every night of the week, very good steak (hand cut and aged in house), locally-sourced wines, produce and breads. Their grilled artichoke is delicious and straight from Castroville, of course.
The low key town means low key rent, one suspects, and thus a lot more value goes on your plate than you might expect. No, it’s not cheap, but it’s not crazy pricewise either. We took our 6 year old there a couple of Sundays ago and enjoyed the aforementioned artichokes and herbed scallops to start. My husband had his favorite Bloody Mary, ever, and perfectly pan-roasted chicken. I had the prix fixe menu of the day, which had a Gruyere souffle, a more than decent steak with a carrot puree, and a petite tarte tatin to finish. My souffle was fallen, I must say, and the waiter blinked a bit when I asked about it. (Update: From James Sly: “The soufflé suissesse is unmolded, and served in cream, baked with gruyere over.” So it turns out that the souffle wasn’t fallen after all. However, that waiter should have known that.)
Sounds much better than fallen! It’s baked in a half inch deep mold.
He said it came that way. Hmmm. Well, it tasted good. And it was $34 for all three courses.
As a more than decent home cook, Top Chef addict, farmer’s market shopper and all-around food enthusiast, I am well aware most restaurants use shortcuts to streamline operations and pare costs. It’s an admirable business model – if you don’t care that the food be special and personal. Sly’s does indeed care about special and personal. On a brunch visit, we asked how they get the artichoke just so. We were advised how to steam them using vegatable broth for 45 minutes, chill them in the fridge for at least an hour, trim them properly and then grill them. I’m not so sure Morton’s, McCormick and Schmicks’ et.al. are doing it that way or would take the time to tell us about it.
The Los Angeles, and, casting the net wider, southern California, food scene is really world class these days. You can get well-made food from eager culinary grads who’ve cut their teeth in New York, Paris and Miami. You want deconstructed Italian, cutting edge Vietnamese, fusion Korean? Seriously amazing.
But no frills delicious is much harder than that. Deceptively simple is all about showcasing ingredients and adding salt, pepper, butter, herbs and a huge dash of service. Sly’s has it.
By the way, one of the Bloody Mary’s key ingredients is fresh squeezed juice of a whole lemon. As for the rest, sorry, you’ll have to go to the corner of Linden and Seventh in Carpinteria for the recipe.