Trying to decide where to stop on my way to Monterey, I looked over Chowhound postings for the Central Coast and found most of the more recent ones to be about steak or barbecue places. So when I saw two favorable mentions of Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles, I decided to give it a try--after all, I can get steak and barbecue where I live.
The first course I got was the ahi tuna carpaccio served with a chopped mesclun salad, a creamy sauce serving both as a dressing and sauce for the tuna. These days, tuna carpaccio is not the culinary statement it would have been in 1985, but the dish was still attractive and well prepared. The tuna was good, if not outstanding. It was odd to see the baby lettuces chopped as they were, but I think it allowed the chef to mound the greens, and as I said, it was an attractive plate. For an entree, I had veal cheeks in a red wine sauce. For me this was a new dish, and I thought Bistro Laurent's version was spectacular. The red wine sauce was heavily reduced and nearly the color of reddish mahogany. The sauce included little mushrooms completely infused with the flavors of the wine and stock, baby pearl onions, and perfectly cooked fingerling potatoes. The veal cheeks had a great texture and picked up flavor from the sauce. The dish was served in a large soup plate, so that there was plenty of the wonderful sauce. In addition, while the sauce was not heavily herbed, the dish was served with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a sprig of fresh marjoram standing up in the middle like little seedlings. This use of fresh herbs was great as I could have a bite of food just with the sauce, or with the sauce and a leaf or two of one or the other spice. I would give this dish 5 stars--if I gave stars. The desert was a rather ordinary chocolate pot a creme. Overall, I thought the food from this visit was very good.
But the food was only part of what I liked about the place. The service was perfect. It seemed like every couple three minutes someone would come by and unobtrusively check to see how I was doing, not by interrupting, but just by looking and being there. If I needed something it was brought immediately. The wine list, while not huge, focused (as it should) on French and local wines. My only complaint--and it is very minor--is that when they were out of the Au Bon Climat pinot that I wanted, the waiter first mentioned another ABC wine that was 30 or 40 dollars more, rather than pointing me to other local wines more comparable in price to the one I ordered.
In any case, I was so delighted with the food and service, I made plans to return to Paso on my way back home, just to eat again at Bistro Laurent. Luckily they were open for lunch when I got back to town. It was scorching hot, so I opted for the cold cucumber and tomato soup and a salad niciose. Both dishes were excellent. The cold soup, improved by a couple twists of the waiter's pepper grinder, was so flavorful, the tastes of both cucumber and tomato blending together with stock in a cool, creamy, tasty soup. The salad also was outstanding, and included perfect firm baby white potatoes, real French green beans, mesclun lettuces, split hard boiled egg, pitted olives (no, not the standard canned California olives), anchovy filets, and two nice sized slices of medium rare albacore tuna.
It was hard for me not to compare this lunch with the one I'd had a few days earlier at the Fishwife in Pacific Grove. For about a dollar more I had gone from mediocre and conventional to really outstanding.
So, of course, after tasting at a few of the area's wineries, I was back at Bistro Laurent for dinner. This time, I opted for the tasting menu (completely different from the tasting menu of the week before). As with the dinner the previous week, this one began with a little amuse bouche (sp?), but this one, with smoked salmon, was different from the previous week's which featured a bit of dungeness crab leg, and an olive and cucumber relish. The first course on the tasting menu was diced raw albacore in a light sauce on a toast point, served on top of a small arugula salad. It was wonderful. The contrasts of tastes and textures was amplified by a sprig of fresh lavender buds which could be added, as I wished, to salad or tuna. The next course were scallops served over what I would call a tomato basil salsa (I'm sure on the menu it had a French name, but the French language is not my strong suit). The chef had split two large sea scallops and the dish was again served with fresh herbs--in this case a sprig of curry flowers and one of oregano flowers. As before, I thought the flavors of the dish were well matched and interesting. My only complaint would be that the scallops seemed slightly overcooked. The main course was a beautiful presentation of squab, cooked with a crispy skin and medium to medium rare interior. It was served with a small flattened scoop of mashed potatoes topped with micro sized french fries, adding a nice contrast of textures. A deep brown sauce matched up with the potatoes and squab, and as seems to be the practice at the restaurant, the squab was perfectly accompanied by a sprig of fresh tarragon. For desert pear slices were cooked in a basil flavored syrup and topped with diced fresh strawberries. Except for the scallops, every morsel on the tasting menu was perfect--and each course served with a glass of appropriate wine. The whole meal was a feast for the senses.
One other note, the host the first evening and the hostess the next time were so knowledgable and caring that I assumed they were the owners--in fact, the restaurant is owned by the chef, which may explain the care taken with the food. The first evening I was there the host came out to pour me some wine and inquire about how I was liking the food and wine. Trying to show off a little of my wine-geekiness, I remarked that I liked that Adelaida pinot from the HMR vinyards, and pointed out that the last time I had a bottle from those vinyards it was nearly 20 years before and in those days it was bottled under the HMR label. Since he looked about 35, I assumed that he would have no response. Instead, he answered, "Why yes, often when Dr. Hoffman comes here to dine he will bring one of his old bottles of pinot with him, and you know, most of them are still tasting good." It was a more impressive answer than I could have imagined.
I don't mean to imply that Bistro Laurent is pure perfection. The bread is fairly ordinary and is cut imho in slices too thin to show off its crustiness, and the ramekin of whipped butter served with it was also rather ordinary. While the flavors of the dishes on the tasting menu were excellent, I thought the portions (only two scallops in one course, for example) were small and the wine pours also were not generous. I left that night a little hungry.
Nevertheless, I found this an outstanding restaurant and would happily return every chance I could get. Oddly enough, since I headed off on my trip, I noticed that someone has twice posted on the boards here and called Bistro Laurent "mediocre." Now I don't live in the area, and that poster may well be right that there are better places to eat in the Central Coast area (would that my current hometown were so blessed), but I would never consider calling the food at Bistro Laurent "mediocre." A few items were not top-notch, and the prices are not cheap, but the food was cooked and presented with thought and with care.
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