Sunday, December 29, 2013

Vacation Highlights, Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1, Alisha and I went for a brief getaway to Santa Barbara.  Here are some of the highlights:

Stuff that was great:
  • The view from the Santa Barbara mountains.  We drove up into the hills to visit the Chumash Painted Cave (more on this later), and stopped several times to gaze out over the hills and beaches.  It's a spectacular view.
  • The snow leopards at the Santa Barbara Zoo.  Snow leopards are rare enough, and all the previous times I've seen them, it's been from a great distance.  At the Santa Barbara Zoo, the snow leopard enclosure lets you get up close and personal.  I was about 6 feet away from a pair of snow leopards.  We got to watch them pounce on each other and play.
  • The Santa Barbara Courthouse. I was surprised when TripAdvisor listed the courthouse as the #1 attraction in Santa Barbara.  After all, this is a vacation spot--I wouldn't expect a working government building to top the list.  But when we walked to the courthouse, we were impressed with its beautiful architecture and view.  The overall effect is that of a historic Spanish monument, complete with beautiful ceilings, expansive murals, and intricate metalwork.  Amazingly enough, it's all a lie.  The courthouse was built in 1929, and has no real historic antecedent.  Apparently, most of downtown Santa Barbara was destroyed in an earthquake in 1925.  In place of the boring, completely banal American city that had been there, the Santa Barbara City Council rebuilt everything in a Spanish Mission style and christened the city "The American Rivera."  Against all odds, this rebranding stuck, and I'll bet that most visitors think they're visiting a historical landmark, rather than the work of the architectural equivalent of a Hollywood set designer!  Make sure that you climb the clock tower for a 360 view of the entire city and surrounding majestic landscape.
  • The crispy cauliflower, fried calamari, and coconut beignets at Intermezzo.  Intermezzo is a more informal establishment run by the same group as Bouchon.  Alisha and I went for what I like to call "American tapas"--appetizers and dessert.  The crispy cauliflower included Parmesan cheese and capers for a sharp kick.  Much the same was true for the calamari, which included jalapeno slices and a spicy aioli.  But the true masterpiece were the coconut beignets.  These were fantastic--filled with coconut custard, and served with a scoop of coconut ice cream.  The sweetness of the beignets was countered and complemented by a tart pomegranate sauce.  The overall effect was fantastic.
  • The food and service at The Palace Grill.  Everything we had was delightful, from the plantation fried chicken salad (with Cajun seasoning) to the Cajun crawfish popcorn.  Alisha had a steak sandwich that had a great smokey flavor as well.  But as was the case with all our restaurants this trip, the dessert stood out.  The Louisiana bread pudding souffle was dynamite, combining souffle and bread pudding (with Grand Marnier) with a sweet whiskey cream and chocolate sauce.  The table-side presentation (first opening the souffle, then filling it with whiskey cream) was a nice touch, and was representative of the friendly, attentive service.  We found it hard to believe that the bread pudding was only $5.50.

Stuff that was not so great:
  • The drive up to the Chumash Painted Cave.  It's only 2 miles and about 10 minutes of driving, but the narrow winding mountain trail--with no guardrail, as Alisha pointed out--feels like a multi-hour ordeal.  We crawled along, terrified by the occasional car heading down the hill.  The road was really only a single lane, and full of hairpin turns.
  • The description of the Chumash Painted Cave.  The Chumash Painted Cave is officially a California State Historic Park.  I pictured an American Lascaux, complete with guided tours.  Instead, when you get to the cave, you have to park in a tiny bulge on the side of the road (not marked, by the way), and climb up a set of stone steps to a cave opening which is barred with a steel cage.  From the front of that grillwork, you can look into a small cave and see two groups of paintings.  The entire viewing takes about 60 seconds.  It was a very cool 60 seconds, but a bit disappointing after the terrifying drive up.
  • The chicken and waffles at Intermezzo.  We love chicken and waffles.  It's hard to mess up fried chicken and waffles.  But the Intermezzo version was a disappointment.  It wasn't the fault of the waffles--the waffles were great, with a rich flavor and perfect mix of crunch and squish.  But the fried chicken was blah.  While I appreciate the difficulty of making a good boneless fried chicken, the Intermezzo fried chicken was covered with thick, doughy breading that drowned out the chicken flavor.  The fried chicken from The Palace Grill was easily 10 times better.  Heck, even KFC chicken tenders would have made the chicken and waffles a highlight.
All in all, Santa Barbara was a great vacation destination, especially for people looking for a convenient getaway near Los Angeles.  Next time we return, I'd like to take more time to explore the surrounding wine country.

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