The Silver Bough
Chef Phillip Frankland Lee and his wife-baker, Margarita Kallas Lee, in addition to having opened The Monarch in the space occupied by Montecito Café for nearly 30 years, recently opened the most audacious restaurant experiment on the Central Coast. It’s called “The Silver Bough” (the name revolves around a Celtic legend), and it’s an eight-guest tasting experience with the hefty price tag of $550 per person (inclusive of drinks, tax, and tip).
Now, before you scoff and ask yourself and anyone nearby, “Who would pay such a price for a meal?” read on, because that is essentially what I thought too. Until, that is, I actually experienced the meal. Take this into consideration: the 18-course extravaganza (including canapés and mignardises) was created and cooked by a true master. Chef Phillip combines ingredients that under any other circumstances could not, would not, possibly harbor complementary tastes. Yet, they do. In fact, Phillip’s concoction of tastes and ingredients works remarkably, extraordinarily, brilliantly well.
Three distinctly different canapés begin the three-hour-plus meal: the first is made with Parmesan cream, Wagyu tartare, local honey, and black truffle; second is a combined taste treat of apple meringue, rye mousse, candied lemon peel, and toasted hazelnut; chive and matcha sponge cake made with whipped butter and a salmon roe finish off the taste buds before entering the magical realm.
We eight – going where no man or woman had ever gone before – were led through the kitchen at The Monarch by Hannah Armer, our guide, into a dark enclosure that closed behind us. It was centered by the inspirational Silver Bough sculpture. At a given moment, we were asked to focus upon the western wall of the small dark room as it opened and slowly revealed Phillip, Margarita, and a cooking crew of three standing in front of a five-foot slab counter with a full kitchen behind them.
This was Theatre of the Raw.
Each diner had a seat at the counter facing the team (Phillip, Margarita, Danielle Van Steen [Church & State, BlueHour], Robert Sandberg [Noma, Frantzen], and Sam Nuckols [Cockscomb, Trois Mec, Petit Crenn, Daniel] as they cajoled and cooked, massaged and heated each ingredient before manipulating and preparing the structure of the final ready-to-serve dish. Then each perfectly matched plate was gently pushed towards us, all at the same time.
Suffice to say the following 17 courses were well thought out and every combined ingredient melded gracefully into each special dish. Every entrée was but one or two bites and most did indeed melt into a delightful concoction wherein single ingredients could be identified if one took the time to dwell upon the activity going on in one’s mouth and throat.
Not only did we not need knives, we barely needed teeth.
An observation: there were so many “Wows” offered up by us diners upon tasting a dish, we were compelled to resort to the original Ojai natives’ language for a more elaborate expression of satisfaction. The Topa Topa Mountains that surround the Ojai Valley are so called because the natives had no word for “really tall.” Topa means “tall or high,” and those mountains are taller, higher, than any others around, so they became “Topa Topa.” During our eight-person food fest, better than “wow,” became “wow, wow.” And, it worked, as one diner would look into the eyes of another and each could wordlessly sense in agreement that we were experiencing a multitude of “wow, wow” moments.
Black truffles from Alba, Italy, live spiny lobster and sea urchins from off the Santa Barbara coast, King Crab from Alaska, venison from northern California, Wagyu beef from Japan, goat cheese from Ojai, honey from… well, I could go on, but I won’t: print space prevents even more superlatives. Oh, and the wines, and the sake, and the Porto, and the cognac, were all of the highest quality and well chosen, all by Brian Lockwood.
My take? If you can afford it – and we can all agree it is somewhere over the top of the normal price range for dinner – you should make a reservation (Thursday through Saturday only). I believe I can safely report without fear of contradiction that a meal at the Silver Bough is currently the most significant taste experience on the Central Coast.
The Monarch, at 1295 Coast Village Road, is open for lunch, bar snacks (from 2 to 5 pm) and dinner. Valet parking included. The by-reservation-only Silver Bough, accessed through the Montecito Inn – as is the Monarch – is a separate operation. Call 805-869-0789 for more information.