San Ysidro Ranch’s rebirth after the Montecito Mudslide and its legendary Meyer lemon tart recipe
High in the mountains of Montecito stands a piece of California history. A small citrus grove, planted in the late 1800s, stretches and blooms in the fresh, ocean air. The spring sun shines down on the grove, adjoining kitchen and herb gardens, flowering pathways and old adobe and stone buildings. The grove is bursting forth with bright yellow Meyer lemons; it offers this bounty on over 500 rolling acres between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, known as San Ysidro Ranch.
San Ysidro Ranch has been a mainstay of Montecito since it first welcomed guests in 1893, providing a lush hideaway in the hills for discerning travelers and celebrities too. This is where Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier exchanged vows; it’s also the setting of John and Jackie Kennedy’s honeymoon retreat. Other famous guests include Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill and Sinclair Lewis.
Full of history and luxury, the ranch encompasses 41 guest cottages, a historic adobe home and ranch house and two full-service restaurants. Plow and Angel—a nod to the namesake of the ranch, Saint Isidore, patron saint of farmers—is a locals’ favorite serving classic, upscale comfort food in a European-pub setting. The Stonehouse, which was built in 1889 as a packing house to handle the ranch’s citrus production, offers a lounge, dining room with fireplace and creek views, as well as patio dining with ocean views.
This land was originally titled in 1769 by the King of Spain and used by missionaries. After the land passed from Mission Santa Barbara ownership to the Olivera family in the early 1820s, they built an adobe house on the property in 1825 (which still stands today as a state and county landmark and one of the oldest buildings in Montecito). As citrus in California grew in importance, it became a working citrus ranch in the 1800s. The San Ysidro Citrus Ranch, which would later become the Johnston Fruit Company, harvested an average of 300,000 oranges and 100,000 lemons annually.
The lemon grove is much smaller today with only 30 trees, and the complete harvest of Meyer lemons goes to feed the diners at the ranch’s two restaurants.
2018’s infamous mudslide in Montecito almost changed all that. The resort was one of the hardest hit by that deadly river of mud, damaging or destroying over half of the ranch’s buildings and depositing mud 4 feet up the historic adobe walls. Fortunately, experts saved the adobe, and the lemon grove was completely spared.
After that day, San Ysidro Ranch, along with much of Montecito, was closed for more than a year. It took 15 months of restoration to bring the buildings and the damaged grounds back to life. With the ranch buildings and cottages now open and historically intact, guests won’t see a clue of what the ranch has overcome in all those months. The SYR restaurants are again turning out a few of the old favorites, but mostly the dishes are new and refurbished, still fed by the lemon grove.
At the helm of the kitchen is Chef Matt Johnson. Johnson has Southern and Central California under his skin; he graduated from Santa Barbara’s School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, worked throughout Europe, then returned to Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pebble Beach and finally, Montecito. His philosophy focuses on organic inspiration and culinary artistry, along with pleasing the many regulars as well as guests from afar.
The table-side Steak Diane at The Stonehouse is still a staple, as is his classic Lemon Tart: two guest favorites Johnson is proud to serve. Everything else is new or a twist on the old with a goal of providing a wide variety of flavors and textures, and a warm place for folks to just hang out. Look for the Pan Roasted Scallops with braised oxtail, romanesco, king oyster mushrooms, corn puree and black garlic vinaigrette or the Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Jerusalem artichoke, Belgium endive, port, sunflower sprouts and kumquat vinaigrette.
The star dessert is always the San Ysidro Ranch Meyer Lemon Tart, served with blackberry compote, crisp meringue and orange blossom honey cream. Johnson says people ask for the recipe all the time (find it below) and that the ranch’s Meyer lemons from the 30-tree grove make the sweetest lemon curd. And Johnson knows Meyer lemons – he once created a 5-course dinner at The James Beard House featuring Myer Lemons from the this historic lemon grove. The blackberries are from a local farm in Oxnard, the orange-blossom honey from Ojai and the edible violas from right here on the ranch.
From the dirt, survivors blossom anew.
Meyer Lemon Tart Recipe
With the refurbishing of San Ysidro Ranch in 2019, Johnson also decided to completely refresh the menu, only keeping a few of the ranch’s classic dishes. This San Ysidro Ranch Meyer Lemon Tart made the cut. It has always been a favorite, and the surviving lemon trees are the star of the show. A cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, the Meyer lemons on the ranch supply all the lemons used at the resort, and are juiced by hand to make the sweetest lemon curd Johnson has ever had. His lemon tart is the celebrity of the menu, being that guests constantly ask for the recipe. Here it is!
For the crust:
Whisk 1 egg, pinch of salt, and some vanilla in small bowl. Set aside. Whisk together 2 cups flour and 1 cup sifted powdered sugar until combined, then cut in half cup cold diced butter until crumbly in texture. Mix with paddle attachment of stand mixer until there are no large lumps, and mixture becomes a little more yellow. Lastly add egg mixture. Mix until it starts to come together and finish by hand until completely smooth. Wrap and place in fridge for at least 2 hours before rolling out. Then, either roll out or press dough into 9-inch tart pan or smaller tart pans. Bake at 350 degrees until light golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool.
For the lemon curd filling:
In stainless steel bowl combine 3/4 cup Meyer lemon juice, 3 eggs, 1 egg yolks, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Place over double boiler and whisk constantly until thickened and 180F. Remove and strain through mesh strainer. Cool to140F. Add 1/8 cup cold diced butter and blend with hand blender. Pour lemon filling into crust. Bake at 350 degrees until filling is set, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool.
For the orange blossom honey cream:
Whisk together 1 cup heavy whipping cream, 1 tablespoon powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons of orange blossom honey and a pinch of salt until medium soft peaks form. Add more honey if desired.
Top tart with honey cream, fresh blackberries and meringue if desired.