Jessica Boone
A Mexican-tile chef's table puts select diners all but in the 1926 wood-fired frill that still anchors the thoroughly reconceived Sevilla.
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Old Flames

Ted Gachot - January/February 2006

With the help of a 75 year old barbecue pit, a young chef keeps the fire of his imagination burning.

The first time E. Michael Reidt toured the well-loved geezer of a restaurant he and his partners were to revamp into the French-Brazilian–style Sevilla--which opened last April in Santa Barbara, California--among all the timeworn paraphernalia of restauranthood, only one item caught his eye: the hulking wood-fired grill. "That," he said, "stays."

The establishment Reidt and company were about to displace was the Casa de Sevilla. Built in 1926, the year after a major earthquake leveled much of this southern California city, it began its career as a speakeasy, selling hootch on the sly to the shaken population. With the repeal of Prohibition, the Casa obtained the first liquor license in the city's history and soon coalesced into a Santa Barbara institution, where the old boy network would meet to cement deals and the likes of Bing Crosby would stop in for a bite--always taking table nine, right opposite the open brick barbecue pit.

A bit scuffed and démodé after 75 illustrious years, the premises underwent a full-gut million dollar renovation, not merely to update the decor but also to address details like rebuilding the foundation to make it earthquake code compliant. One partner, Christian Hunter, took the design under his wing and, working with Chris Moore of the local firm DesignARC, transformed the amiable homeliness of the old bar and grill into a slice of Barcelona chic. The color scheme is muted and deep: Tempranillo lees red, bullring yellow, the darkest of dark wood. And the rooms are enlivened by touches like a Gaudi-esque mosaic standing bar, a backlit biomorphic Lucite frieze, 50-inch-tall one-armed matador chairs, and an elaborate latticework of spangles thrown by Moroccan lanterns. Only the mirror that used to hang over the bar (now in a nook on the porch) and the truncated name were retained as nods to the past.

A restaurant called Sevilla, with Barcelona decor, in an old speakeasy, serving French-Brazilian fare? Does that, one might ask, work? The chef's response is a confident, "Yeah, I think so." And the restaurant does illustrate what's gained when its concept is not limned too narrowly (you know, if it's Brazil then give 'em fish shacks, Carnaval sequins, and Astrud Gilberto). Sevilla's not quite expected marriage of styles shows how, sometimes--when the right mix of disparate but not really unrelated ingredients are brought together in the right balance and proportion--they spark.

Reidt has a genius for doing, in his accommodating no-big-deal manner, just that. Raised in Boston, and without a speck of Latin blood in his veins, he has always possessed an irrational affinity for two things: food and the culture of the Iberian Peninsula and its diaspora. The best explanation he can offer for the latter is that, "In another life I think I was a Spanish sailor." This manifested itself in his teenage years as an attraction to girls who invariably turned out to be Spanish or Portuguese. Even while enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America, ostensibly learning to prepare food like a Frenchman, he managed to receive a second education at home while cooking with his Portuguese girlfriend. After an externship at The Inn at Little Washington and professional stints in the Boston area at Todd English's Olives and with Suzanne Goin at Alloro, he took off on a culinary pilgrimage, zigzagging the country in search of the focus for his career. He ended up in Hawaii--he thought because of the incredible natural diversity--only to find himself in a culture that had been indelibly shaped by Portuguese missionaries. Even the darned ukulele was Portuguese.

Taking the hint, Reidt returned to Boston and started putting the pieces together. He married a Brazilian, spent his off-hours roasting suckling pig, mixing pickled cactus salad, and poring over Jessica Harris' Tasting Brazil. He cooked for a time at an inn in São Paulo. And when he finally opened his first restaurant, Bamboa, in Boston in 2001, it showcased everything he had learned about putting French technique at the service of Brazilian ingredients--and earned him a spot on Food & Wine's list of top new chefs for that year.

The kitchen Reidt built for himself at Sevilla is a lean and unfussy workshop in which to keep practicing this particular style of candomblé. When he took it over, the chef recalls, "There was no plumbing, no air-conditioning, just one little stove that was a wreck." He remedied the situation with a serious one-stop shopping spree. In the course of three days at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago, a year before opening, he sourced and purchased not only all the equipment he needed but very nearly everything else. He took the time, for instance, to cull from many different manufacturers a unique set of off-white dishware with "sexy" curvilinear shapes, bought silky leather menu covers, and decided on wood-handled Sant'Andrea steak knives of such fierce heft they practically prove that he must have been a Spanish sailor in some former incarnation.

Orders placed, Reidt returned to Santa Barbara with a suitcase full of catalogs and, measurements thus in hand, set about laying out his workspace with masking tape on the old kitchen floor. Once he had what he wanted, he called in a local kitchen designer and asked him to make it work.

The layout Reidt came up with is both classic and tweaked to his needs. The kitchen is small, and so is the restaurant (only 48 seats). Nevertheless, the line leading to the barbecue pit begins with a battery of 10 powerful burners, over which are stacked a jumble of well-tempered cast-iron, copper, and stainless-steel pots and pans. The abundance of burners means room for sauces and purees to be brought quickly to the heat point before being shifted to the large flattop, next stop down the line, to simmer on an even heat. A deep fryer, for the likes of crispy onions and vaca frita (braised, then deep-fried beef), occupies the following spot, just beside the grill. Opposite the line are fish, "middle," and meat stations, with garde-manger and dessert areas at the far end. Reidt generally takes the "middle," meaning specials and appetizers, with sous chefs Nathan Heil and Steven Shea manning the other two positions. The kitchen is run on a strict "you start a dish, you finish it" ethic. No assembly line production here. Personal ownership, Reidt believes, ensures the quality of the results.

Three full ovens are tucked under the burners, and a double convection oven occupies a spot that had to be supported belowground with a nine-foot concrete pillar. While the chef was trying to make up his mind whether it was worth the trouble, it seems one of the staff simply went to the basement and dug the foundation. That same basement houses an atmospheric Prohibition wine cellar, slightly reorganized to house the 270 label selection that is divided on the wine list into categories: bubbles, crisp, rich, bold, spicy, and smooth. The kitchen has only one small walk-in, but given that Santa Barbara has a farmers' market of astonishing quality and abundance almost every day of the week, there's little need for more.

Pared to the essentials as it seems, the kitchen nevertheless has a few little luxuries--a Robot Coupe mixer and a favorite one-horsepower Champion juicer. "You could juice a cat in it," Reidt observes. He feels an even greater affection for a Cuisinart cordless mixer, ideal for pureeing soups and sauces. Aware that it had worked wonders at Daniel in New York City, Reidt also installed a Profitek computerized video system. Eight cameras let the small staff keep track of every table in the restaurant, at a glance, on a single screen--a great help in pacing meals. The next course goes onto the fire when they see that the first one is about to be cleared. "We can also get somebody onto the floor right away if a table is pouring its own wine," Reidt observes. "And since it's always on, it doubles as a security system."

The kitchen's real and essential luxury is, of course, the grill. In fact, both the restaurant and the kitchen were, Reidt says, "built around the barbecue pit." To bring the old warhorse up to snuff, he sheathed the brick in stainless steel and built a copper enclosure around that, on the kitchen side. Everything else, even the old hand-cranked iron spit, still dates to 1926. At the original Casa de Sevilla nothing separated the pit from the dining room. Reidt too wanted it to become a sort of portal into the kitchen, allowing a give-and-take of energy to flow from one into the other. Therefore, on the dining room side he added a beautiful Mexican tile mosaic fronting that doubles as a chef's table. In the old days the open fire must have let off plenty of heat to warm Bing's vocal chords, but when Reidt opened with it that way, he found he was unable to control the smoke, which wafted in thick clouds into the dining room. "For almost 100 years the pit's been here, working fine with one rinky-dink fan," he says. "I spend $100,000 on a ventilation system and am inundated with smoke!"

A plate of glass now intervenes between the conflagration and the chef's table--and it is a good thing. When the mix of mesquite and charcoal is first fired up, the flames reach a height of about three feet, enveloping the spit and licking at the hood. "Even once the embers have burned down," the chef observes, "the sparks still fly." The pit gets fired up every night, first at 5, then at 7:30. And on Thursday night through the weekend, it gets stoked again at 9:30. The embers are still smoldering when they're cleaned out in the morning and have to cool for three days in a metal box before they can be discarded. That's a lot of ash. "And a lot of work," Reidt adds. It's also no small amount of wood. Soon after opening, he dispatched an employee to Home Depot for a bit of equipment few chefs probably count among the tools of the trade: a woodshed.

Just about everything the kitchen puts out is touched in some manner by the grill's fire. Every meat is grilled. Even the organic pork shank that embellishes Reidt's feijoada is grilled first, then slow braised the next morning. Dishes that are not subjected directly to the flames are still imprinted with the flavor of the pit. He tosses his ricotta gnocchi, for example, with grilled shrimp. He grilled watermelon to serve with duck on the restaurant's debut menu. And to answer the inescapable demand for Caesar salad one encounters in California, he turns out fantastic grilled romaine with vaca frita, shaved Manchego, and a roasted garlic dressing.

In many ways it's the simplicity of their food, matched with the impassioned success with which Brazilians make something out of nothing, that provides the touchstone for Reidt's imagination and classically trained skills. The French-Brazilian amalgam, he insists, is not as strange as it may appear. "Feijoada, after all, is essentially Brazilian cassoulet and moqueca bouillabaisse." In his hands the various elements simply benefit from rubbing shoulders. His dry aged New York sirloin finds itself on a shallow bed of a Brazilian staple, mofongo (a plantain/bacon mash), gets a swipe of tamarind glaze, and is topped with the chef's own invention--"BBT," a chunky slaw of banana, bacon, and tomato, which echoes the mofongo while adding hints of sweetness and acidity.

In addition to feeding the dining room, the kitchen also provides tapas for the lounge scene that on weekends rages in a manner general manager Mark McEachren--fresh from Key West and thus with some sense of the measure of these things--likens to the glory days of Studio 54. The tapas menu includes wild boar albondigas (meatballs), "baby" Serrano ham and Manchego sandwiches on brioche, grilled bananas with cilantro oil, and popcorn tossed with truffle oil. The dessert menu, available in both dining room and lounge, features the likes of pumpkin bread pudding with pumpkin brûlée and caramel/balsamic dulce de leche on crushed Oreo cookies.

Just as Reidt's menus allow for a range of styles and ingredients, Sevilla does an uncannily good job at accommodating a variegated clientele. The Casa de Sevilla owners stopped in the second night the new place was open and apparently gave it the thumbs-up, because since then, Reidt says, "The old crowd still comes, eyes wide open, full of stories about the old place." The unisex bathrooms caused a ripple of stir, at first. But even though the lounge, especially Thursday through Sunday, does a raging, high fire business that needs a bouncer to control the crowd at the door, the restaurant is so well designed to handle the noise that the Brazilian house mixes thumping in the bar/lounge become merely a stimulating background pattern in the main dining room, while in the booths nestled within an L-shaped corner of the building just beyond, one can easily hold a comfortable, even quiet, conversation.

McEachren is even thinking of requiring jackets in the dining room one night a week, because the old crowd would like it. When the right enticements are there, these things have a way of arranging themselves. It doesn't hurt that the Casa de Sevilla crowd tends to come in early and that the lounge only really gets hopping about the time the fire pit is getting stoked for the third time.

Equipment

Range, flattop Montague
Ovens Montague
Fryer Dean
Video system Profitek
Ventilation Captive-Aire
Fire suppression Ansul
Refrigeration Beverage Air
Mixers Robot Coupe, KitchenAid, Cuisinart
Blender Vita-Mix
Juicer Champion
Ice machine Scotsman
Ice cream machine Taylor
Espresso machine Astra
Coffee maker Bunn-O-Matic
Dishwashing Ecolab

Equipment

Equipment

Range, flattop Montague
Ovens Montague
Fryer Dean
Video system Profitek
Ventilation Captive-Aire
Fire suppression Ansul
Refrigeration Beverage Air
Mixers Robot Coupe, KitchenAid, Cuisinart
Blender Vita-Mix
Juicer Champion
Ice machine Scotsman
Ice cream machine Taylor
Espresso machine Astra
Coffee maker Bunn-O-Matic
Dishwashing Ecolab