No need to prove anything….’Keep Calm and Cook On.’
In the middle of Santa Barbara State Street where all hip and new restaurants come and go, there is a small place tucked in quietly for more than 3 decades. Yes, my friend. It’s Downey’s. Honestly, I was surprised that not many people know about this place.
Well…they don’t have a fancy, hip, young vibe nor ipad ordering system. As you walk in, you feel like you are walking in a grandparents’ living room.
I can’t help feeling a bit young. I’m liking this feeling especially as I found myself googling ‘botox’ the other day. I’m still feeling young in this crowd…nice. I may get carded. Yipee!
I had my first meal here a few years ago when I first moved to Santa Barbara and ever since, whenever someone asks what my favorite restaurant in town is, without hesitation, I answer ‘Downey’s’. I even emailed Chef John Downey the very next day expressing how much I loved the food and was still day-dreaming about it.
All these young, hip, over-the-top restaurants are cool, but for me, food IS the atmosphere.
The original Farm-to-Table chef
Chef John Downey, who is still working the line, knew that he wanted to become a chef at the age of 12 in his native England as he looked up his older brother who was also a chef. By the time he was 16, John was attending cooking school and working in local restaurants. After he settled down in New York and learned the finer points of classic French cuisine, he joined the ‘New American’ food movement and worked under the advisory of James Beard at the World Trade Center’s “Market Dining Rooms”. A passion was ignited in New York and Chef Downey was compelled to travel to California where so much of that good food was produced. Arriving in Santa Barbara, John brought his years of experience in English, French Nouvelle, New American cuisine and transformed fine dining scene in this town…about the same time, Alice Waters in San Francisco and Wolfgang Puck in L.A. were also changing the way Californians would dine out. It would be termed “California Cuisine” by the food press. In 1982 he opened Downey’s in the very heart of the best farming region in the country. Yes, he was the ‘original’ farm-to-table chef!
Let the ingredients be what they are.
I’d like to call his food the most ‘HONEST upscale’ food I ever had. No fancy gastronomy or plating. Just freshest ingredients prepared with ultimate care.
“I try to stay far from cutting edge, it’s not me. I don’t like it too fancy. You just don’t mess up with food too much. Let them be what they are! “ Chef John smiles quietly.
Crab Salad with ambrosia melon, pine nuts & Fresh Ginger-Lime Dressing is light and refreshing. Combination of all these ingredients is just fantastic!
Fresh pea soup served with creme fraiche and marjoram ain’t Anderson’s split soup. No offence but I haven’t had pea soup this delicious before.
Duck, oh duck. Whenever I go to a fancy restaurants, I always order Duck. You can cook chicken, beef, pork at home easily but duck is quite tricky meat to cook. So basically, I let the chef to all the duck-cooking for me. And I’ve got to say, hands down, Downey’s has the best Duck in town! Marinaded in his secret sauce, then cooked to a perfection, madelions of duck breasts are served with mango Chutney, Exotic Grains & Ginger Sauce. Simply amazing.
If you see squab on the menu, try it. Don’t be afraid…..Carpenter Ranch Squab served with Roasted Garlic, Swiss Chard & Potatoes. It’s one of Chef John’s favorites and you will see why. Their fillet mignon and fish dishes are also superb…I just wish I had a bigger belly!
The dessert cart sits in the middle of the small restaurant. Every now and then I would look over to see my favorite dessert of the world and wonder if I should speed up eating my entree – Chef John’s Famous ‘Raspberry Mille Feuille’. Endless layers of crispy phyllo dough on top and bottom, layer of fresh raspberries and light pastry cream in between. One night, I was having a craving for it, walked down to Downey’s for cup of coffee and Raspberry Mille Feuille and found out it was closed (it was pretty late at night) and I remember I sobbed.
After this magical dinner, I nodded without realizing….this is how all the restaurants should be. This place is like a quiet strong man who doesn’t need to try hard to prove anything.
Next time, you are on the state street and see a little red door between Victoria and State street, make sure you go in. It will be one memorable meal of your life.
Food File Fun Facts
• Along the pastel green walls of Downey’s dining room you will find beautiful plein-aire paintings of local scenes by Liz Downey, wife of chef John. They are available for sale.
• Chef Downey was a professional hang glider and his favorite ingredients to cook with is Kale.