When driving north of Santa Barbara into the beautiful wine county of the Santa Ynez Valley, fine dining options can be rather challenging at times. There are many fine choices of quaint locally-owned restaurants serving up nice dishes with sustainable ingredients. Over the many years we have traveled in the area we have never disappointed with any of our dining options. That being said, sometimes you are in the mood to enjoy a fine dining experience, and in the past that could be a difficult thing to find amongst the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez.
We had the pleasure of meeting Chef Budi Kazali a few years ago when he was a featured Chef at the World of Pinot Noir. His very imaginative cuisine with Asian and French influences kept our palates waiting with anticipation for the next dish he would present (of course paired with the area’s very fine Pinot Noirs).
Before taking over the stoves at The Ballard Inn & Restaurant in 2004, Chef Kazali, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, worked in some of the best restaurants on the West and East Coasts. Early in his career he worked in San Francisco’s renowned La Folie and the boutique Campton Place Hotel. After relocating to Boston, Chef Kazali helped to open the James Beard Award winning Blue Ginger with Chef Ming Tsai, where he gained expertise in melding the flavors of Eastern and Western cuisines.
After five years at Blue Ginger, Chef Kazali returned to San Francisco, and refined his proficiency with French cuisine and technique at the acclaimed restaurant Gary Danko. At Ozumo, a lively and upscale Japanese restaurant, Chef Kazali returned to his appreciation and dedication to producing fine Asian cuisine. Finally, with his own Ballard Inn & Restaurant, Chef Kazali brings his vast experience to light in his own innovative way, creating memorable and delicious dishes to please the most discriminating palates. We were so intrigued with his culinary artistry that we vowed to visit his restaurant the next time we were in the area.
We headed off Highway 246 and drove through Los Olivos on our culinary mission. Pulling up to the Ballard Inn, it reminded us of a grand Southern plantation with a wraparound porch complete with rocking chairs and snow white columns. The restaurant is one of the most intimate and romantic dining destinations in the Santa Ynez Valley and has been voted as one of America’s top 10 most romantic inns. With only 12 tables, candlelight, and a fireplace, we can see why it deserved such an honor. The atmosphere is elegant but comfortable at the same time.
The menu is small and simple. It features appetizers like panko-crusted local abalone with truffled ponzu, red roast Kurobuta pork belly with Napa cabbage fondue and pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with pomegranate reduction, which provide guests a nice way to start. Entrées you are sure to enjoy include chive-crusted Scottish salmon with shiitake and miso-dashi broth and grilled New York strip loin with shiitake and leek pad thai and peanut sauce. No matter what you may choose, each of these dishes offers insight into Chef Budi’s culinary genius. After a lovely tuna sashimi that awoke our palates we eagerly began.
Chef Budi calls his hamachi sashimi “New Style” and you can see why. It's served with avocado and soy-yuzu vinaigrette, and it explodes with layers of flavors, the soy yuzu vinaigrette leading the way. This dish was deliciously fresh with the hamachi not overpowering the dish, but in perfect harmony with the Vinaigrette and avocado.
We had heard through the grapevine that the pan-seared duck breast with sweet potato purée and balsamic reduction was a house specialty. So of course, we had to see what the excitement was all about and were very glad we did. It does not get any better than seared duck breast and sweet potato. Chef Budi takes it one step further by adding a balsamic reduction and puréeing the potato for a dish we will return for.
Chef Budi offers nightly specials and the menu can change with some mouthwatering surprises. When we were told of the seared Ahi tuna special, we just had to indulge. The tuna was seared to perfection, served on a bed of greens. Every bite was memorable.
We usually think of a bread pudding as being quite filling and expansive. At first, we were planning on passing on dessert, but after a gentle nudging from our server we decided to see why see he was so insistent. This was not your usual bread pudding. There were flavors and aromas of ginger and a fluffy light texture made it a nice treat — a fitting end to a lovely experience that did not leave us overly full but very satisfied.
Dining at the Ballard Inn was a delightful experience. Our servers were eager to help us relax and enjoy our evening dining experience. Chef Budi Kazali's award-winning French-Asian cuisine melds the flavors and techniques of eastern and western cuisines to create dishes that would impress even the most discriminating diners. On our next visit we plan to stay at the Ballard Inn and experience this very special venue over several days to enjoy great dishes and explore the Santa Ynez Valley from a front row seat.