If Bistro Laurent is the kind of restaurant that every wine region seems to have, then Artisan in Paso Robles is the kind of restaurant every wine region wishes it had. We had several great meals on our recent California trip, but this may have been the one that was the most purely enjoyable.
Clearly the locals know what they've got. The place was packed the first night we stopped by and there wasn't a table available for at least an hour, so we made a reservation for the following night. Our persistence was rewarded with a meal that highlighted local product with unfussy preparations and bold flavors.
The restaurant has a relaxed, casual feel to it, with lots of natural light coming in through the tall windows. The space is split by a line of banquettes, behind which is a partially open kitchen and a sizable bar area with additional seating. It was equally crowded the next day when we returned for our reservation, and the room feels convivial without ever becoming overwhelmingly noisy.
The menu listed 9 starters and equal number of main courses, which were supplemented with a few off-the-menu specials. I started with one of those specials: Santa Barbara spot prawns, their raw bodies just barely cooked with a drizzle of hot oil (a la Nobu's "new style sashimi"), the heads fried, all served over some grilled hot peppers, with a sidecar of a little salad spiked with fried capers and julienned preserved lemon. There were lots of bright flavors here, but well balanced and none so aggressive as to overpower the beauty of the pristinely fresh seafood. My only regret was that the heads were good for sucking on, but not crisped up sufficiently (as with ama ebi) to gnaw on in their entirety. Mrs. F started with an heirloom tomato and cucumber salad that was everything that Zuni Cafe's should have been. It was loaded with a generous selection of plump ripe tomatoes and slivers of cucumber, with a bit of richness contributed by some La Panza Gold, a washed rind sheeps' milk cheese from Rinconada Dairy near San Luis Obispo.
Both Mrs. F and I stuck with the starters portion of the menu for the rest of our meal. I followed with a "BLTA" - bacon, lettuce, tomato and ... abalone! This was a great dish, pairing tender Cayucos red abalone (in itself every bit as delicious as the abalone I'd had at Manresa a couple days earlier) with lightly crisped pancetta, fried green tomatoes, sprigs of peppery arugula, and cubes of avocado. It was an unexpected but effective combination, and months later I still pine for more of that fantastic local abalone. I also had the barbecue braised pork belly - yes, everyone's doing pork belly these days, but this was a nice twist on the theme, bringing some tangy barbecue flavors to the party, along with some tender stewed cranberry beans, and a drizzle of brightly flavored salsa verde to perk things up and cut through the fattiness of the pork. Mrs. F had a smoked gouda and porter fondue, which offered garlic toasts, cubes of andouille sausage and broccolini for dipping. This was probably the least exciting of the dishes we had, but it's hard to be unhappy with any scenario which combines pork product and bubbly cheese.
Thanks to the kids we also got to try some of the main course items. The salmon was pronounced by Little Miss F the best she'd ever had: a wild-caught West Coast fish, paired with a fava bean succotash enhanced by some applewood-smoked bacon, along with a rich, tasty corn pudding, fried little Italian squash, and a scatter of corn shoots. A steak from the specials list was also very good: a richly flavored grass-fed Hearst Ranch filet mignon (yes, that Hearst - the 80,000 acre ranch surrounds Hearst Castle), which came with roasted potatoes and shishito peppers and a drizzle of the same salsa verde which accompanied the pork belly.
Desserts were equally unfussy and satisfying. We tried a chocolate black bottom pie topped with marshmallow fluff; apple fritters with butter pecan ice cream and salted caramel; and a peach and blackberry crumble, served in a little cast iron dish, and topped with a blackberry creme fraiche ice cream. We were hard pressed to pick a favorite.
The wine list sensibly focuses predominantly on local producers, but if you've brought back some samples from a day of wine tasting, the corkage is an eminently reasonable $15 (which they were very happy to tell us when we made our reservation). I was pleased to find a Booker "The Ripper" Grenache (2006) for about $80 (release price was $55 with only 136 cases produced). If you're all wined out, they also had a great beer list with more than a half dozen on tap, plus a fine selection of bottles from around the globe.
The folks behind Artisan are brothers Chris (chef/owner) and Michael (general manager/owner) Kobayashi, who seem awfully young to have produced a restaurant that exudes such confidence and comfort in its own skin. There's nothing precious about the food here, but it's nonetheless clear that a good bit of thought and effort has gone into its preparation. It hits that great sweet spot of being refined and homey at the same time.
"California cuisine," with its focus on locally sourced product, seasonality and sustainability, is often accused - some might say justifiably, others would dispute that - of "just serving figs on a plate," to use David Chang's recent description. Artisan clearly shares that focus, but just as clearly is "doing something with its food" - something that's awfully good.
1401 Park Street
Paso Robles, California 93446