Written at the bottom of the business card for Sage & Onion in Santa Barbara were the words "an American dream." It's a fitting phrase for chef/owner Steven Giles. He was trained in London by the best, Albert Roux at Le Gavroche, a wonderful, old-fashioned place where lunch can take a leisurely four hours, with guests cosseted and served classic French cuisine complete with marvelously subtle sauces.
Giles first came to the States to be chef at Michaels Waterside Inn in Santa Barbara, then he went to Lake Placid Lodge in upstate New York. He returned to Santa Barbara to become the Catering chef at Wine Cask Catering in Santa Barbara before opening Sage & Onion 19 years ago.
Like contemporary American cuisine, modern British cuisine draws influences from all over the world. Anyone who pictures "toad in the hole" or “bangers and mash”, even Yorkshire pudding, when British food is mentioned is sadly misinformed. The Mediterranean and Italian cooking in London is as good as I have had anywhere. At Sage & Onion, Giles was open to those international influences but also sprinkled in a few English frills on his savvy menu. He definitely brought something to the California cuisine party. He always said I am here to educate not to dictate, he would never tell any diner what they had or had not to eat, but merely suggested.
Like every Santa Barbara chef worth his toque, Giles relied on the extraordinary quality of produce and seafood from this glorious stretch of California coast, which has a lot in common with the Cote d'Azur. Imagine what it must be like for a cook who endured the long, gray London winters to find strawberries for months on end, corn and beefy tomatoes as early as June and fresh-picked greens all year long. In his menus, Giles rigorously followed the seasons.
There was always a foie gras dish on the appetizer list, too. In spring, it was seared and served with a tart rhubarb jus and a tender polenta. In summer, it's a chilled terrine, though two silver-dollar-sized rounds perched on a single piece of toast seems a bit stingy. I can't help comparing the portion with the two heroic slabs that are served at the famous Paris bistro L'Amis Louis. Like caviar, you can never have enough foie gras.
Giles' soups don't resemble the usual dull vegetable purees many restaurateurs feel they need to offer. Spring brought an asparagus soup with the texture of velvet, garnished with sauteed morels that seemed to soak up butter in every crevice. Summer's silky corn soup is poured from a silver coffeepot over a fluffy sauteed crab cake.
Giles' training at Le Gavroche comes to the fore in his sauces, which are well balanced, supple in texture and rarely too reduced. He was going for a different model from that of many California chefs, who insist on having as much power and punch in their sauces as they do in their Cabernets.
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