Last Sunday, Share Our Strength held their third annual Taste of the Nation culinary benefit at the Montecito Country Club.

Over 600 attendees strolled on the perfectly groomed lawn to taste some of Santa Barbara’s finest food offerings. According to event coordinator Joni Rod, the event successfully raised just under $40,000 for charities fighting childhood hunger — including the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara, California Food Policy Advocates, the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and the California Association of Food Banks.

[media-credit id=16749 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]Each dollar raised is equivalent to $7 in purchasing power for the food banks.

“It’s amazing what good wine and food will do,” Michael Blackwell, executive chef for the Montecito Country Club and event organizer, said of the success. I couldn’t agree more.

Thirty of the area’s top restaurants and caterers, in addition to dozens of vineyards, brought out their best-of-the-best to the event and every single sample was to die for.

I set out hoping to pick my favorite dishes for this week’s On the Menu. With so many wonderful choices, the task was daunting. However, I managed to narrow my choices down to three delicious seafood dishes and a few delectable desserts.

Most of the restaurants, bakeries, and caterers at the event would put a strain on the average Gaucho budget. But, if you have reason to celebrate or just want to splurge on some absolutely amazing food, these local eateries are the place to go.

New West Catering
181 A Industrial Way, Buellton
(805) 688-0991

Sample: Wild king salmon tacos with chanterelles and tomatillos

I love Mexican-influenced food, but I must admit that I tend to avoid spicier fare. However, New West Catering’s wild king salmon taco might have changed my mind forever.

The soft taco was tender and had a subtle taste all its own. The salmon was absolutely gorgeous and the chefs had a huge slab of the perfectly cooked steak on the table, which they delicately sliced away for the tacos. It smelled wonderful, looked wonderful and tasted even better.

As I mentioned, it was a spicier dish than I would normally choose. However, it was well worth it and the soft taco cut a lot of the burn and brought out the best in all the other flavors of the dish.

New West Catering’s owners, Jeff and Janet Olsson, have over 30 years of combined experience in the restaurant industry and their expertise certainly showed.

However, the most unique thing about the taco was not the fare itself, but the plate that they served it on. On first glance, it definitely appeared to be made of sustainable material, but I assumed it was corn husk. However, one of the working chefs told me that it was, in fact, made from “fallen leaves.”

“It looks cool, tastes great, is completely sustainable and no one does anything like it,” Jeff Olsson said.

Pierpont Inn
550 Sanjon Road, Ventura
(805) 643-6144

Sample: Scallop crudo with yuzu

From the moment I saw it, I knew I had to have it. The cured fresh scallop, truffle and yuzu foam, bean sprout, yuzu and avocado guacamole, cilantro, and segments of blood orange and grapefruit were perfectly proportioned on polished seashell halves.

I must admit, the task of digging into this sample was daunting. I really had no idea where to start since there were so many things presented on the shell and no way that I could all get it in my mouth all at once. However, I soon learned that it didn’t really matter. Whatever combination I ate it in presented a perfect and unique combination of flavors.

It was sweet, tangy, a little salty and so delicious. Besides, with such a beautiful presentation, it was impossible not to feel posh while eating it. It was unlike anything I have ever tried before, and I loved the truly genius mix of flavors and textures. After trying this sample, I was dying to go to Ventura’s seaside Pierpont Inn to see what other delightful dishes they serve up.

Bella Dolce Bakery
113 West De la Guerra St., Santa Barbara
(805) 962-2253
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Sampling: Banana pudding

Like the salmon tacos, I will admit that banana pudding isn’t something I would normally order. However, the beautiful concoction whipped up by Chef Eileen Randall Cook’s Bella Dolce Bakery absolutely blew my mind. The pudding was served in a little cup with a chunk of fresh banana inside and topped with whipped cream and macadamia nut crumbles. The dessert was creamy, yet surprisingly light, and chock-full of fresh flavor.

It would be criminal if I failed to mention the other delights that this bakery offered. Their tangerine cupcake was airy and the velvety icing had a tiny tangerine segment atop for a truly adorable finish. Inside, I was surprised and delighted to find a tangerine lemon curd that could have been a killer dessert all on its own.

They also served a coconut rice pudding that was absolutely amazing. It was firm and creamy with the coconut flavor blending in subtly. In combination with their chewy and lovely macaroon, I was in heaven.

According to the Bella Dolce Web site, the kitchen does not have a retail store, but desserts are made to order for each client. All of their products are fresh and handmade from scratch.

After tasting their delicious samples and perusing their Web site, I definitely won’t hesitate to consider Bella Dolce if I ever need treats for a special occasion.

Bella Vista at the Four Seasons Resort
1260 Channel Dr., Santa Barbara
(805) 969-2261
Hours: 7 days a week, hours vary

Sample: “Chilled Culinary Fantasy”

It was love at first sight when the coconut scallop ceviche with nitrogen gazpacho sorbet and toasted sesame seeds served in a cone caught my eye. However, I was most intrigued by the nitrogen cooker that sat on the table with trickles of fog seeping out. I had heard of chefs using nitrogen freezing techniques but had never sampled one of the resulting creations.

Presentation and remarkable cooking methods aside, the flavor was unbelievable. The tiny cone had each ingredient perfectly layered inside and, in addition to being lightly sweet, broke away easily to reveal each new taste. The delectable combination of flavors definitely motivated me to come back for seconds…

…And, admittedly, I even tried for thirds. But, much to my surprise, when I returned for another portion, I found that they had switched to an entirely different breed of treat — nitrogen lychee gazpacho with watermelon and lemongrass salsa served in the same cone. Luckily, the name blew my mind almost as much as the taste. The fare was unusual, light and sweet — a perfect way to conclude the event and cleanse my palate on the way out.

Honorable Mentions: Coast Restaurant & Bar at the Canary Hotel’s homemade butterscotch pudding with candied pecans, Jessica Foster Confections’s chocolate truffles, Ca’ Dario’s ravioli al burro e silvia spinach and ricotta ravioli with a brown butter sage sauce, Ariel Catering and Events’s assorted homemade marshmallows.