THE BAY IS BACK

Years ago, locals knew just where to go to find great seafood – Bay Café. Since then, the quality at the lower Anacapa restaurant was diluted by a change of in ownership, and the high standards set by the Castagnolas have not always trailed behind. A couple of years ago, John Pecorari and family members purchased The Bay Café and have been working hard to bring it back to a lofty status. Fortunately for Pecorari, two months ago Siobhan Major walked in the door seeking employment. A cook since she was 13, her plan had been to distance herself from the kitchen and to try her hand at waiting tables. Anyone who’s met her knows that she’s a free spirit with a tender heart and is an asset no matter wherever she lays her hat. The previous chef took flight without notice and Major slid in with ease.

“Why’d you take this job?” I ask her after listening to her cooking history and desire to change occupations.

“I remembered how we use to sit at the Chase and ask, ‘where do we go for great seafood?’ The answer was always the Bay Café,” she responds

Her urge to bring back the Café’s reputation and atmosphere was apparently stronger than her desire to change occupations. Major cleaned up the kitchen from floor to ceiling, rearranged the dining area, and got the staff to, as she put it so nicely, “represent her.”

Major’s career began at age 13 when she was the lunch cook at the Brassiere Restaurant in Bennington, Vermont. By age 15, she was living in an artist colony in Arlington where they had weekend cabarets. By 17, she was head chef at the Yea Olde Tavern in Manchester Center. In 1981, she came to visit her family in Santa Barbara, and for 14 years she was the personal chef for Montecito Bank & Trust owner Michael Towbes. Needing a vacation, Major traveled across the country and on to Jamaica, Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan. Returning to Santa Barbara with her daughter, Anne, she had lunch at the Bay Café, which brings us back to today.

During the interview, Major pointed out that one of the regulars, Marguerite Chiarenza, who’s been coming to Bay Café nightly for the past two years. I had to go over to the bar and chitchat. A true lottery winner and owner of the New Danish Inn in Solvang, Chiarenza is a ball-of-fire (she’s in her 70s). “I love the people, the owner and the father, Nonno (Ermanno),” she exclaims enthusiastically. “It’s like an Italian family, and the other night, I realized how delicious the food is!”

When my guests and I arrived for dinner, I was told by our server Brandon Tankersley to “sit back, relax, and prepare to pamper your palette.” Major had prepared a tasting menu that was fit for a kingdom. We began our gastronomic adventure with bacon-wrapped scallops with maple cream sauce (paired with Conundrum, Caymus, Napa). Brandon pointed out that Major’s Vermont background inspired this combination of crunchy and soft textures in a sweet, creamy sauce. It reminded me of the waffles my mother used to make infused with bacon. This was followed by ceviche (wild salmon and halibut), a local favorite, with flavors of fresh lime and cilantro. My favorite, though, was the Bay Café tacos – ahi tuna, mixed cabbages and hoisin sauce on corn tortillas. The multi-sensory experience of flavors and tastes on the tongue was a real treat. Crab cake fans beware because these are the real thing: pure meat with a hint of lemon (paired with Ferrari-Carano, Fume Blanc, Sonoma). Major then sent Tankersley over with a taste of her East Coast chowders: Manhattan and New England.

And then, we had to sample Nonno’s famous fettuccine alfredo with shrimp, scallops and salmon. These noodles were beautiful; thin and cooked al dente. “Magical,” was the response one guest uttered. I thought the meal was complete until I saw Tankersley walking with the entrée “taster.” There was escolar in red bell pepper sauce, salmon en croute (wrapped in fillo) and fillet mignon that was paired with Château Margene, Paso Robles, Cabernet Sauvignon. All were accompanied by twice-baked potatoes and assorted vegetables.

I can’t continue without mentioning the bartender, Alex Haimanis who mans his station wearing flashy suspenders. He let me know that in 1968, he and Harry Davis opened Harry’s. “I hear they dragged you out of retirement,“ I tell Haimanis.

“Yeah, I go wherever I’m needed,” he casually responds. He lasted 33 years at Harry’s.

Believe it or not, my guests were ready to consume dessert. Tankersley served us fresh apple-cranberry crisp, Nonno’s tiramisu and candied orange and chocolate cheesecake and mint chocolate mousse (paired with Château Haut-Placey, Sauterne, France).

During this feast, we listened to music by acoustic guitarist Jason Frost, who performs inside the restaurant Wednesday thru Saturday. As the weather continues to warm up, the patio is open for dining, and music is presented Saturday and Sunday by the Ex-Husbands Blues Band, from 2 pm to 6 pm.

Major welcomes parties of up to 24 for private dining in the banquet room.

The Bay Café (963-2215) is located at 131 Anacapa Street. It is open daily for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 am to 9 pm.