Cathy and Kirk continue eating, but today ed (from Yuma) is not only eating, but he's also inviting you to share a dinner.
I first visited Paso Robles nearly 25 years ago (geez, I'm getting old). Back then it was quite literally a little Cowtown. Maybe there were six or seven wineries scattered around, some of which weren't especially good, and I could find no interesting place to eat in town. Nowadays, over 230 wineries lie within a few miles of the city, and numerous eateries beckon you to sample their gourmet cuisine.
My favorite place for dining in the town had been Bistro Laurent, which features a modern California approach to traditional French cuisine. Memories of dishes like veal cheeks, roast squab, and venison shanks still make me salivate. Unfortunately we were going to be in town on a Sunday and Monday, the two days BL closes each week.
So Tina and I did some research and then walked around downtown Paso reading menus, asking about daily specials, and discussing where we wanted to go. The decision, however, was an easy one to make as soon as we got to Artisan: The dishes on the menu sounded interesting, the wine list was varied and almost affordable, and all that walking around made us hungry.
As we sat at our table looking over the menu, several slices of outstanding crunchy French bread (baked by a small bakery in Atascadero) showed up: This was the best bread on our trip. The rustic half baguette came with a generous pat of soft sweet cream butter. This was a good omen for the rest of the dinner.
We had decided on building a meal around a local white wine. The most interesting wine, at least the most interesting one I could afford, was a Vermentino from Tablas Creek ($38): One great thing about dining at restaurants like Artisan and Passionfish is that you get a chance to try wines that you might otherwise never encounter -- particularly if you live in a place like Yuma, Arizona. This Vermentino is the first California grown version of that varietal that I have ever encountered on a wine list. Even in Europe, this type of grape is not common, it being the predominant white grape only on the island of Sardinia -- though it is grown elsewhere. The Tablas Creek version was crisp, richly flavored, and smooth.
The appetizers soon arrived. Tina had chosen crabcakes ($16), which were perched on quarter size disks of firm potato, covered in a very tasty, lightly spicy remoulade sauce. A sprinkling of micro greens decorated the golden brown cakes: Although I don't quite understand the potatoes, which to my mind seemed out of place on the plate, the crabcakes themselves were packed with tasty crab meat: I ordered seafood chowder ($10) for my first course:
Having grown up close to the Oregon coast, I consider myself something of a chowder aficionado. This one was quite good. The broth was creamy and richly flavored. Most notably, the predominant taste was mussels, with small chunks of potatoes and halibut studding the soup and providing texture variations. Allegedly, some clams were also present, but any clams were very much in the background.
For my entrée, I had decided on the halibut, which came with lobster raviolis, grilled spring onions, micro greens, ceci beans (fresh chickpeas), and a small side of chard ($28): Halibut cannot be broiled more perfectly. Inside the crisp crust, the fish was incredibly moist and tender: The beans and greens added variety to the platter. The lobster raviolis, unfortunately, did not taste strongly of lobster, although they certainly looked right: As good as my main course was, Tina's selection was the gem of the entire evening. On the menu it was described as "Summer truffle pici, handrolled pasta, piopinni mushrooms, goat cheese toast" ($25). It looked like this: We both agreed that this was as good as a noodle dish can be. The noodles themselves, lightly golden with the faintest hint of truffle, were mimicked by the shimeji (piopinni) mushrooms, which presented the same colors and shapes: Yet the flavors and textures of the two were very different.
The noodles and mushrooms were only one of the flavorful matrices that interacted on the plate. The robust contrastive tastes of grated aged Italian cheese and absolutely fresh peas mingled with every bite of pasta. To those of us bored by standard frozen peas, these freshly shelled nuggets were a joy -- and their flavor was accentuated by the pea greens strewn on top of the noodles:
If Tina's entrée had any shortcoming, it was the goat cheese toast: There was nothing wrong with it, but it was unnecessary and played a distinctly second fiddle in the orchestra of flavors set before her.
Even though one or two aspects of the dinner might have been better, we both were extremely impressed. In addition to the creative, interesting, and flavorful food, the service had been friendly and attentive throughout the meal. Just for one example, we both drank a lot of water that evening since we had been wine tasting in the afternoon and then had walked around 95 degree Paso Robles looking at menus. As soon as the waitstaff watched us slurp down our first glasses, a large carafe of iced water was placed on the table. I also enjoyed watching the manager, a young woman who seemed to miss nothing going on in the restaurant. Kitchen and waitstaff totally professional.
This dinner was, by my standards, a pretty pricey meal. It was, however, so tasty and intriguing that we decided to do something that I almost never do -- come back to the same place on the next night for a second meal. Stay tuned for the results of that adventure.
Artisan, 1401 Park Street, Paso Robles, California 93446, 805-237-8084