29 Oct Caviar, Truffles, Wagyu beef, wine, cocktails and more at The Tavern at Zaca Creek in Buellton
Caviar, truffles, Wagyu beef, craft cocktails, and a solid wine list of Santa Barbara County Wines and international wines, The Tavern at Zaca Creek is an upscale steakhouse to rival many. But The Tavern at Zaca Creek is located in Buellton, California, not exactly where you might expect it. However, it is definitely worth seeking out.
For the first time in seven months, I took a trip up the coast. After a week in Paso Robles, I drove down to Santa Ynez to spend a few more days before heading home. After asking some local friends what was new, everyone said The Tavern at Zaca Creek. When I looked it up, I was happily surprised to see the General Manager was someone I knew. Stephen Villa used to be the assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars and now is running Buellton’s newest restaurant. I made my reservation for Sunday night.
I have been to Buellton many times before, to eat at Industrial Eats and taste wines at one of the many wonderful tasting rooms. But Buellton is an industrial town with fast food chains, gas stations and motels lining Route 246. A casual yet upscale steakhouse is not what I expected to find.
After I passed the historical Anderson’s Pea Soup, I made a right turn at Avenue of the Flags, to head north. After passing a series of offices, the road narrowed and turned into Jonata Park Road. The land around me was empty lots. I had never driven this far north on this particular road. But then suddenly a beautiful wooden structure was within my sight. I had arrived at The Tavern at Zaca Creek.
The Tavern at Zaca Creek was originally a tavern and restaurant built by Jim Buell, a descendant of the town’s founder. After sitting empty for nearly two decades, The Tavern at Zaca Creek has been resurrected by a collaboration of long-time Santa Ynez Valley locals, including Chelsea Rushing and her husband Stephen Villa.
The Tavern at Zaca Creek is a warm and inviting venue. The original structure with high ceilings and wooden beams still stands but have been enhanced by stone walls, tiled floors and simple but striking décor. While dining indoors is not possible right now, The Tavern at Zaca Creek has an enclosed and covered 1,000 square-foot outdoor patio. The large wooden tables are spaced out with fresh greenery separating them. And, each table has a fire pit in the center that can remain covered, but on a cool night will provide heat on the patio.
The concept at The Tavern at Zaca Creek is an upscale steakhouse. But these are not ordinary steaks. Executive Chef Kaitlyn Paul, a Buellton native, is working with 100% American wagyu cattle raised in Santa Ynez and has a butchery on site. Additionally, she is highlighting the best produce and proteins being harvested and raised by some of the most dedicated California Central Coast farmers, ranchers, and fisherman. And there are global selections such as the caviar program and truffles.
My meal began with two items from the Bell & Whistles section of the menu.
Mezcal Shrimp Cocktail – large fresh poached shrimp are served with a mezcal cocktail sauce with a tajin rim. The touch of smokiness and heat is perfect for the shrimp.
Wagyu Tartare – Minced Wagyu, prepared in a tartare marinade with a truffled egg on top, is so tender and mild in flavor. It is served with a chipotle aioli and freshly made potato chips.
For the first course, I washed it down with a Mosaic cocktail made with Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, Matcha powder, and a housemade citrus syrup. The smokiness of the mezcal worked really well with the earthiness from the matcha powder and the citrus added to the balance of the drink.
As a mushroom lover, Drunken Mushrooms were a highlight of the night. White chanterelle, crimini and trumpet mushroom are prepared with lemon, cognac glaze and smoked abalone dust.
The umami flavors and the richness of the cognac glaze paired beautifully with a Truffle Martini. The JCB Truffle Vodka, from Burgundy, France, is a vodka made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that are fermented and aged in barrel for 6 months and then distilled seven times and filtered four times. It is very smooth and delicate on its own. Stephen then infuses more truffles. The resulting martini is a smooth and elegant drink with the earthy aroma of truffles.
The Flowers & Peppers is a vibrant plate of roasted red onion flower and blistered shishito peppers with sea salt, charred meyer lemon aioli and bottarga.
As Chelsea described to me the sourcing of fresh local ingredients, she spoke about the fresh lobster she had picked up from a vendor north of Santa Ynez. I could not resist and had to have the Dynamite Lobster. Not only was it “dynamite” tasting, it was also prepared like a dynamite roll with uni, house-made Fresno chili siracha, housemade aioli, and topped with freshly shaved truffle.
Of course I had to have the Wagyu beef and selected the Beef Rib, a massive Wagyu rib served with roasted potatoes, field greens stewed in Wagyu beef stock tossed with Parmesan and lardons. The meat was tender both to the touch and to the taste. There were also large grilled grapes on the plate which were a wonderful and delicious surprise!
To pair with the food, Stephen has curated an extensive wine list of Santa Barbara County wines, as well as a solid selection of international wines from France, Italy, and Austria. There are also a few Oregon wines on the list. Add Stephen’s substantial spirits and liqueurs list and a craft cocktail program, and this might be one of the best selections available in the Santa Ynez Valley.