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Paso Robles weekend--a restaurant report (very long!)

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Paso Robles weekend--a restaurant report (very long!)

Al@Fairfax | Feb 22, 2005 12:18 PM

Thanks to the eight Cal Board 'Hounds who responded to my request for suggestions. My wife and I had a wonderful Pres Day weekend based on your input. I will divide my report between winery visits and dining. Alert:this may get wordy......

We drove down from Marin on Saturday and were able to avoid rain most of the way. This was the story of the weekend, in fact. It only rained when we were safely inside someplace, and meanwhile we enjoyed those astonishingly beautiful, electric green hills, gushing creeks and trees in blossom and bud. A gorgeous region.

Dining: We ate two dinners in Paso. Saturday night we ate at Paris, and as a couple of Hounds had predicted, each of the very-bistro dishes was fine. The room itself is not inviting; it seems like it has barely been converted from a previous storefront existence; it is nicely decorated, however and once we began to eat it seemed just right. My wife, who is flirting with some kind of ultra-healthy diet, decided to go non-meat. She started with a cheese plate which was a generous helping of a half-dozen different French cheeses, a brie, a meunster, another washed-rind gem, a semi-soft and more; each was nicely aged. This was accompanied by a small salad of really fine greens, a crisp and flavorful combination of bitter and savory. I began with onion soup--I wanted to stave off the chill of the coming evening. It was a good not great rendition of this standard: a bit too thick a piece of bread for my liking and a broth that could have been richer. We moved on to our main courses: my wife asked for an assorted vegetable plate, and it came with many tiny, tasty items: carrots, asparagus, braised onions, and a really fine potatoey potato gratin. I love rabbit (no it does NOT taste just like chicken) and this was very nicely done, juicy, and served with some of those tiny carrots and onions and bathed in a really delicious mustard sauce. That sauce may just have been the finest single taste of the trip. Our desert was a wonderrful tarte tatin which was not too sweet (good) and with a slightly chewy crust. This is really well-done country French cooking, very reasonable ($32.50 for three courses) and we were sorry that there were so few people here enjoying it with us. We drank a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel--a hint of wines to come--and the hostess suggested a really wonderful French dessert wine whose name I foolishly have forgotten. I want more! While the hostess was charming and knowlegable, the server was nice but a bit awkward and inexperienced; she seemed like a high school kid with a weekend job, not a professional waitress--not enough of a problem to take away any of our enjoyment of the evening, however.

Our Sunday night meal was at Villa Creek, and as some of the Hounds had predicted, it was inconsistent. To say the least. First, it is a very pleasant space. It looks like it was an old train station but is new construction we were told, and despite this barnlike space it is warm with a southwestern air. We had a short wait for our table and enjoyed two other local wines--Dunning syrah, Windward, er, uh something. We were happy with the fresh and warm flour tortillas and the very chipotle-heavy tomatillo salsa while we awaited our first course. For my wife, it was more asparagus, grilled with serrano ham; very nice. For me, a cream of broccoli soup with a strong and delicious hit of porcini flavor. It would be the best dish of the evening. The server told us that the catch of the day was gone, but the chef's special was a grass-fed filet with horseradish mashed potatoes. I opted for that, while my wife was lured from the all-veggie route by the lure of duck breast with a mole sauce and cabbage. Our server alerted us that the chef recommended both of these meats medium rare. I replied that medium rare was the very most cooking we would want and closer to rare would be better. She chuckled and noted this. I also requested a side dish of spinach from the menu; it would be a great accompaniment to the beef, I thought. The server said that they were out of spinach but were serving beet greens. Fine, I love beet greens. When the filet came it looked just beautiful, wrapped in crisp bacon with grilled scallions draped over, all resting in a pool of creamy potato. I cut a slice. Not rare. Not medium rare. Medium and heading south. My wife's duck came sliced and I could see that it was also medium heading toward well. I have friends who immediately send such plates back; after all, what was served was not what was ordered. It is hard for me to do that; so we ate what we were given. On reflection though, maybe what that kitchen needs is to have diners who give them that ultimate critique. I am just starting to try grass-fed beef, and I will say this about the filet: it had a very nice slightly gamey flavor that beef in memories of my youth used to have but which has become hard to find for years, replaced by a soft but bland style of meat. The potatoes (which I had really looked forward to) were more a sauce than an accompanying vegetable. The filet rested in a pool of extremely moist potato which looked lovely, had a small horseradish kick, but were too few, too wet and too bland. My side of spinach turned to beet greens had morphed again by the time we got it, into pea shoots. I might have opted for something else had I known what I would get, but I like pea shoots so I kept them. But these were overcooked and tasted too much of the grill and moreover, the serving was perhaps a third of a cup of greens plopped on a bread dish. For the $3 these cost, I could have had a soup tureen full of well-cooked pea shoots at a good Chinese restaurant. Another disappointment. Across the table, meanwhile, the duck breast was a bit dry and almost completely lacking in duck flavor. Now, unlike the rabbit, this dish acutally COULD have been chicken. The mole sauce seemed rather insipid, tasting mildly of onion but little else. The cabbage, however, my wife reported was just fine. We had one desert, a Meyer lemon--uhh--pudding thing. I did not order it so I don't remember exactly what it was called. I enjoyed my share of it, but we found that sweetness overwhealmed the lemoniness; admitedly, this is a question of taste not execution. Our server had recommended a Hitching Post Fiddlestix pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills. This was our only non-Paso wine of the weekend, and it was just fabulous and helped soothe feelings over the food. For my after dinner refreshement, I chose an Antinori grappa and that too was excellent. The service at Villa Creek was very good. We were well attended to and our server was really friendly without being invasive. This was VC's biggest advantage over Paris. In fact, having read the menu and tasted three wines plus the grappa, I would say that Villa Creek is a wine list in search of a restaurant. I wonder how other Chowhounds would react to Villa Creek, when they are faced with what should be an exemplary evening of dining out, and are met with a series of disappointments. I liked the ambiance of the place and would go back, but perhaps next time I would just eat at the bar and enjoy the wine. At the very least, I would buck up and be more critical while I was there.

Our one breakfast out was, again thanks to the Hounds, at Panolivo and it was fine. Even though my over-easy eggs were over hard (and I am not a fan of home-fries which always seem to be missing something--herbs and onions would have helped here) the coffee was good and croissant was fine and I liked people-watching what I thought to be locals enjoying a quiet holiday Monday morning. It was a good end to a really fine but too brief weekend.

Thanks again Hounds.

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