Restaurant Review: Sushi|Bar Montecito
By Rebecca Horrigan
The Michelin-starred Sushi by Scratch Restaurants: Sushi|Bar Montecito provides a dining experience unlike any I’ve had before. From the moment of arrival, all notions of control over the meal should be delightfully released; you can rest, sip, and “taste-assured” that you are in good hands.
Pulling up to easy, breezy Coast Village Road, already feels like a treat, but Sushi|Bar Montecito brings an exciting, edgy, LA vibe that blends the best of both worlds. Check-in is situated at the Montecito Inn, ideally 15 minutes before the reservation, so that diners can linger over a fresh “Welcome Cocktail.” Ours was a zinger of Japanese whiskey, ginger and sake, revving up our taste buds for the delicious road ahead.
Guests are welcomed into an inconspicuous door with no signage and seated at the 10-seat chef’s counter, with their name on a little chalkboard at their designated spot. Special touches like this make the night feel special, dream-like, and personal.
The speakeasy vibe stems from the origin story of Sushi|Bar Los Angeles. Chef and owner Phillip Frankland Lee explained that they were never meant to have more than one location. He was already experiencing great success with Pasta Bar (which has also received a Michelin star), but always wanted to open a sushi restaurant, so he turned his little office behind the restaurant into a sushi bar on nights when he felt like practicing his skills. The pop-up sushi bar had no name or phone number and started as his own small creative project.
It’s hard to keep a great thing a secret, and Frankland Lee ran with the success, opening the original Sushi|Bar in Encino in 2017 and in April 2019 in Montecito. An Austin location is in the works.
“I wanted to add to the conversation not just regurgitate the conversation,” Frankland Lee said of the inspiration behind his 17-course omakase “chef’s choice” menu. The selection of perfect bites created by Frankland Lee and Chef Jason Venters (at the Montecito location) changes frequently and highlights the wealth of beautiful local seafood Santa Barbara has to offer including, urchin, halibut, spot prawns and more. Each course is served with an intro from the passionate chefs and prepared before your eyes.
Hokkaido Uni (Photo by Liam Brown)
“The tradition of omakase is about the chefs telling the story of their childhood and hometown in the flavor profiles and what they’re trying to do,” Frankland Lee said. “How can I do this in a way that celebrates the fish and tells the story of my childhood in a way that’s both nostalgic and groundbreaking at the same time?”
My favorite dish, the hamachi with sweet corn pudding and sourdough breadcrumbs, illustrates Frankland Lee’s ethos perfectly.
“It’s been on the menu since the very first night in my little office in LA,” Frankland Lee said. “I grew up in the San Fernando valley eating corn on the cob and Nancy Silverton’s sourdough,” he explained. The breadcrumbs on the hamachi come from pastry Chef and Phillip’s wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee’s sourdough from Pasta Bar, which is created from a 57-year-old starter.
Like most great art, the beauty lies in the details, and Frankland Lee and his crew have worked diligently to ensure that every sprinkle of sea salt is the perfect amount. Other highlights on the menu included a beautiful beluga black caviar with bluefin tuna, the Hokkaido scallop with yuzu koshu, homemade soy sauce, lemon and Balinese sea salt, and decadent unagi prepared with a kick from poblano kosho and finished live with rendered marrow for a mouthwatering bite. Dessert featured a dainty Makrut ice cream bonbon with rice and sesame shortbread dipped in matcha chocolate. I could have eaten a tub of those tasty creations from Kallas-Lee.
The amber-hued room’s warm and festive environment further bubbles with life due to their fabulous beverage program by masterminds Jamie Rocha and Gavin Humes. The menu features creative cocktails, rare sake, and thoughtful wine and beer offerings. I chose the mixed pairing option and was able to sample the full range of their beverages artfully matched with the flavors of each course. Whatever you decide to sip, don’t miss the tart, sweet, swoon-worthy Bee's Japanese, featuring smoked honey, yuzu and gin.
Those looking to snag a seat should check online on the first of the month, a month ahead of their ideal reservation. It’s clear that Lee’s declaration that he wanted to become a sushi chef at the age of 13 has already exceeded his dreams. With rave reviews, a great team, and an inspired menu, who knows what this little speakeasy that could, will do next?