Seagrass has a lovely serenity to it that is reflected in its soft neutral décor and in the prompt but understated service. Mitchell has deep roots in the Santa Barbara community, and his personal commitment to sustainability and locally sourced foods is evident in the menu design at Seagrass.

My family and I often drive north from Los Angeles and, as we’re situated halfway up Topanga Canyon, could easily jump over to the 5 instead of committing to the 101.

The culinary options on the former route are pretty grim, though; while I will cop to a secret love of McDonald’s new gigantic iced vanilla coffees for fueling long car trips, I still want to eat better than McNuggets. Besides, what’s the point of living on the coast if you don’t actually take advantage of the scenic drives that others can only enviously glimpse in car commercials? And so we take the 101 to San Francisco, and when we’re especially at leisure for time, take PCH through Malibu up to Oxnard, too.

Ironically, the best and worst part of coastal car tripping is Santa Barbara. Some of the worst, grind-your-soul away, stop-and-start traffic is to be found on a weekend rush hour at the dreaded Milpas exit in Santa Barbara. After suffering one particularly grueling 6 p.m. snarl with an unhappy teething infant in the car seat, Mr. Sexton and I vowed to either stop in Santa Barbara and enjoy it, or to henceforth avoid it entirely by taking the 5. Happily, Santa Barbara offers lots of great eating, strolling and stretching opportunities; while it may extend our drive time by two to three hours, all three of us arrive home happier when we stop there to relax and refuel.

I had every intention of doing cheap Wahoo’s fish tacos or upgrading to a simple bistro meal at Pierre Lafond on State Street the last time we stopped in Santa Barbara. But as we searched for parking, I noticed a sign outside a promising-looking patio that read “Seagrass” and was thrilled to recognize my good friend Mitchell Sjerven’s second restaurant in Santa Barbara, which he opened in late 2007. I know Mitchell from working the annual “World of Pinot Noir” summit the last few years, an event at which he tirelessly wrangles sommeliers from all over the country. Stun guns and lassoes might be more effective, but it’s really Mitchell’s charm and professionalism that rousts us all for those dreaded 7 a.m. shifts after too much late-night Champagne. (And good coffee from the angels at San Luis Obispo Coffee Co. helps quite a bit too.)

Mitchell’s first Santa Barbara restaurant, the wildly popular Bouchon, was the restaurant where Mr. Sexton and I toasted our pregnancy news with both sets of our parents a few years ago. The memory of that fantastic meal made me eager to try the second outpost from Mitchell and his talented team.

Seagrass has a lovely serenity to it that is reflected in its soft neutral décor and in the prompt but understated service. Mitchell has deep roots in the Santa Barbara community, and his personal commitment to sustainability and locally sourced foods is evident in the menu design at Seagrass. Featuring seasonal specialties like Santa Barbara spiny lobster and using only Pacific Ocean fish and shellfish from the local harbor implies both freshness and community support. As a charter member of the Sustainable Seafood Program at the Ty Warner Sea Center, Seagrass is a leader in responsible coastal cuisine. That philosophy also extends to the wine program at Seagrass, which reads like a “who’s who” of Santa Barbara County’s finest winemakers and appellations. While there are some international wines cheekily grouped into an “Outsiders” portion of the wine list, the emphasis is again clearly local with favorites like Morgan Clendenen’s fine viognier made under the Cold Heaven label in the nearby Santa Rita Hills and Palmina’s special white blend made just for Seagrass from grapes grown at Honea Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. Both these local whites paired beautifully with the crispy chili-lime calamari we ordered as a starter. The fiery calamari was tempered nicely with mellow roasted garlic cloves, sweet cherry peppers and cooling lime wedges.

Because I was excited about the spectrum of local wines offered by-the-glass at Seagrass, we worked backwards by choosing red pours first and then matching the entrées to those wines. Accordingly, I paired a lamb dish with my glass of Carhartt’s 2006 “Faith Vineyard” sangiovese, a sustainably-farmed plot in Santa Ynez that is also a promising microclimate for this Tuscan grape. The cranberry-pine aromas of the sangiovese BEAUTIFULLY mirrored the pomegranate-glazed lamb with organic rainbow swiss chard from BD Farms – it was one of my top pairings this year for sure. Mr. Sexton drank a bit of a wine that was entirely new to me, from the Baehner Fournier estate vineyard in eastern Santa Ynez. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot, this “V3” wine reminded me that this inland section of Santa Barbara County is certainly warm enough to ripen these Bordeaux grapes as effectively as Napa and Sonoma. Predictably, Mr. Sexton happily ordered the grilled 12 oz. New York steak with truffly spinach and tangy horseradish, two of his very favorite accompaniments to beef. His wife wishes to register an official, published complaint about spouses who relentlessly order meat in a seafood spot as elegant as Seagrass. But the steak paired with the V3 red blend was pretty darn tasty.

We lingered longer than we meant to at dinner, as a pineapple upside down cake with pecan sauce and coconut ice cream felt appropriately tropical for a warm Santa Barbara night. I finished Mr. Sexton’s glass of red wine as he switched to iced tea for the rest of the drive home, a drive that featured a soundly sleeping baby and a fantastic moon reflected over the Pacific. We rolled into Topanga well after midnight with full bellies, happy hearts and a new favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara. Slow food is always better than fast food, especially along the 101 and at Seagrass.

Seagrass Restaurant

30 East Ortega Street, Santa Barbara

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