spiritland bistro

Santa Barbara is a Los Angeles day-tripper’s delight. Beaches, mountains, hiking, surfing and wineries are all within a short drive from the City of Angels. Though Santa Barbara boasts its share of culinary escapes, one question has plagued those looking for healthier alternatives: Where to go if you seek a quality vegetarian menu? Finally, Santa Barbara has its very own organic restaurant. SpiritLand Bistro claims the honor of being the area’s only gourmet international-style cuisine that focuses on organic ingredients.

Billed as “organic global cuisine,” SpiritLand is the brainchild of chef-proprietor Joel Koch and general manager Gary Grenus. Joel worked at restaurants in Dallas, the Radisson Hotel and Whole Foods markets, but always wanted to pursue his own vision of global organic food. “The main reason Joel and I came up with this concept is because we could never find a restaurant like this when going out to eat,” Gary says. “Finding new and fun ways to bring forth cultural cuisine is part of the magic of organic global food,” he added.

Each week, SpiritLand Bistro features a region of the world, and Joel creates both vegan and vegetarian dishes based on those regions and the unique, diverse spices and flavors inherent to each geographic area. So there’s always something new. Of course, the regulars have their perennial favorites on the menu and that doesn’t change. The joy is in trying new dishes from regions that are not normally represented and, “staying true to pure organic ingredients,” Gary says.

Philosophically, Joel believes, “food is energy and different types of food have different vibration frequencies.”  He feels that fresh, locally grown, organic vegetables have the highest levels of vibration; therefore he purchases local foods, recommends Audubon-endorsed seafood and uses 90 to 100% organic ingredients in every dish, depending on availability. Joel takes an Ayurvedic approach to his cooking and believes that, “food from different parts of the world can be executed with an organic approach and a beautiful, creative presentation”.

My wife and I decided to see for ourselves. The Bistro sits about 12 tables and is quiet and comfortable, with photographs adorning the walls. I chose the Belgium stuffed salmon, filled with mushrooms and herbed goat cheese accompanied by crisp broccoli and jasmine rice with a ginger cream sauce. My wife selected the Mediterranean stuffed chicken breast, an organic free-range chicken filled with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese served with squash, mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. We followed our meals with their signature dessert, a lavender and wild flower honey crème brulee, which was gluten, and sugar free. The food and the presentation were impeccable.  

The Bistro identifies each dish as vegetarian, vegan, raw and also states which dishes are gluten, soy, egg, sugar and dairy free, making it easy to choose the meal you want. Their beverage choices include organic wines, specialty teas, tinctures, elixirs and organic, fair trade coffee. Joel explains his understanding of flavors by saying, “In many cases the flavors are so unique because individual palates have been exploited by artificial products and it may be the first time to understand the true flavors of a specific cultural cuisine. This is exciting and profound at the same time.” And herein is the secret of SpiritLand Bistro: flavor and taste are not sacrificed. What is left out are the processed ingredients we’ve become accustomed to. So the next time you’re in Santa Barbara, make it a point to visit SpiritLand Bistro for dinner (they don’t serve lunch). Your body will thank you.

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