Sly’s wise ways with food (August 10, 2009)
Chef James Sly reflects on a year of Carpinteria cooking
Orgeat. Most people probably don’t even know what it is, but Sly’s makes the almond syrup from scratch. That’s one big reason its Mai Tai is so good, and one small reason the restaurant itself, which just celebrated its one year anniversary on August 8, is so great.
Of course, while Sly’s is merely a year old, James Sly, chef and owner, has been working in kitchens for 42 years — 20 in Santa Barbara alone. Not only is he wise in culinary ways, Sly exhibits a wry and dry sense of humor when asked if there’d been any surprises in the first year by responding, “We weren’t figuring on the complete failure of the banking system when we opened our business. But I don’t think we were affected any worse than anybody else, maybe less. We continued to do what we planned to do — great food, good value, even if it’s expensive: and not everything’s expensive. We didn’t have to offer live music or two-for-one coupons. I like to say ‘food adds a festive touch to every meal’ and luckily we have customers who believe in it that.”
Those customers might notice the establishment is not billed Sly’s “Restaurant” but Sly’s Seafood Steaks Cocktails. The menu is large enough it that can be hard to focus — the day of our interview, Sly paused to add up just the vegetables on offer, and he got to 22 if you count the potatoes. And do, especially the home fries (that means potato chips here) that come with skinny onion rings that will ruin your ring-radar forever, as no one makes them as crispy and light, full-flavored yet not numbingly oniony.
That menu, Sly said, “is entirely favorites from the menus of 100-year-old restaurants in San Francisco — Tadich Grill, John’s Grill [it’s in The Maltese Falcon], and Sam’s Grill. Even the typography is from a 1957 menu I found. The other day a customer out of the blue commented, ‘You just made my visit to San Francisco easier — now I don’t have to go to Tadich.’”
Offering classics impeccably done is one of Sly’s fortes. His spot, for instance, will present Dover sole to the table and bone it there; he was aghast upon hearing a food stylist for Julie & Julia discussed the problem of flipping a sole filet during cooking. “In 1991 Julia [Child] and Paul [her husband] sat on the porch of the El Encanto and said, ‘We really need a restaurant here where we can get a good Dover sole.’ I have done my share to make that happen,” Sly understated. He had what he calls “a great understanding of what food should be” with the iconic Child, insisting, “When she was sitting in your dining room, people knew they were in the right restaurant.”
Sly couldn’t seem happier to have his own restaurant after years at El Encanto, then time working as a caterer, and at Lucky’s in Montecito, insisting he couldn’t do it alone. “It’s a real kitchen with a real trained crew,” he explained. “Everybody knows how to cook, not just reheat things.” In particular he singles out manager Michael Bott, who is in charge of the wine list and cocktails, and Chef Fredy Ordu±a, who has been with Sly since his El Encanto days. “An exceptional part of the business is my wife [Annie],” he said, “who charms everyone who comes in, and who is working more in the restaurant than she ever thought she would.”
While the restaurant’s Web site jokes Sly’s is in “the wilds of Carpinteria,” the couple has lived there for 20 years, which is one of the reasons they chose the location. “We looked all around and had other areas we were interested in but they all fell through,” Sly related. “This building became available and we thought it had good bones. We figured, ‘How far can seven miles be?’ There are people who come in here now who had never dined out of Montecito.”
They enjoy everything from the USDA prime steaks to the abalone, exquisitely pan-fried. “It’s a real treat,” Sly said. “I’ve been working with that farm [Dos Pueblos] for 20 years. The abalones are extraordinarily fresh. People really respond to it — some even order abalone Benedict at brunch, and it’s not on the menu. I honestly don’t know why more chefs don’t use it.”
Of course, not all chefs got their start at 15-and-a-half, turning mushrooms for Jimmy’s Continental Cuisine. “I had to flute 125 mushrooms a night for the steaks,” Sly remembered. “One night the refrigerator broke, and when the repairman left the bill, the chef, a big Swedish redheaded guy, said to me, ‘I’ve got three months left on my GI Bill and then I’m going to refrigerator repair school. If you want to be a chef, take this,’ and he handed me a copy of Escoffier.”
More than 40 years later, with numerous lessons learned, Sly summed it up this way: “When I started out, chefs were drunks in the back and waiters ran restaurants. Now chefs are stars. It’s a great time to be a chef.”
Brave the wilds of Carpinteria at Sly’s, located at 686 Linden Avenue. Call 684-6666 or visit slysonline.com.
Source: George Yatchisin, Santa Barbara Independent