Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Central Coast Sojourn - Paso Robles, Cambria & Cayucos

This last weekend Kathy and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary. Nothing could make me happier. When we got married 5 years ago in Italy we rented a villa in Tuscany and invited 30 of our friends to join us. We’d toyed with the idea of repeating that for our 5th but neither of us could spare the two weeks off and the exchange rate is horrible right now anyway. Besides, we’d just gone to Barcelona in March to celebrate Kathy’s birthday. Hence a little more low-key, but no less treasured celebration was called for.

We decided a quiet weekend within a day’s drive was better in terms of direct cost, opportunity cost at work and the reduced stress of not having to deal with airports and long flights was just a bonus. After looking around a bit we chose the wine region surrounding Paso Robles for our daytime knocking around with overnights in Cambria and Cayucos.

My family lived near the area in Santa Maria when I was very young and I’d been through the area a few times as an adult, but I honestly had no idea that the Paso Robles region had so prolific a wine industry. I knew there was a bit of it, but assumed it to be a niche market. Totally wrong. There are, as of this year over 170 wineries and close to 200 private vineyards and the area is the fastest growing wine producing region in the state. Primarily a red-wine growing region it has developed a reputation for not only producing excellent examples of classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Sirah but the blends using traditional combinations and cutting edge creative combinations have brought widespread acclaim to the regions producers.

Of the wineries we visited, by far our favorite was Justin Vineyards & Winery. Its way out of town on Chimney Rock road and about a 17 mile drive from downtown Paso Robles but the drive is beautiful and the wines are totally worth the effort. Justin specializes in Bordeaux blends and Rhone varietals. Their flagship offerings are the “Isosceles” & “Justification”. Isosceles is a “left bank” style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and Justification is it’s “right-bank” counterpart consisting of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Both are simply brilliant but Kathy and I both preferred the Justification. The Cabernet Franc’s aromatic contributions of Cassis and tobacco perfectly compliment the berry and currant flavors of the Merlot.  Justin has received numerous awards and accolades for their offerings and they are richly deserved.

As for dinning we mapped out three places we intended to visit. We planned for lunch at Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles, and dinners at The Black Cat Bistro in Cambria and at the Caas House in Cayucos.

First on the docket was Thomas Hill Organics headed up by Paris born Executive Chef, Julie Simon. Thomas Hill Organics has its own organic farm providing seasonal heirloom vegetables and herbs and they work with numerous local growers, ranchers and wine producers to provide the grist for their menu. The first dish we selected was an open faced duck grilled cheese sandwich with Foie Gras, Smoked Duck Breast, Parmesan Reggiano, and Field Greens dressed with a Plum Wine / Truffle oil vinaigrette.

I absolutely loved this dish. Rich, smoky duck breast and buttery Foie Gras works exceptionally well with the saltiness of the parmesan and combined with the truffle oil greens makes for a brilliant combination of Mediterranean flavors.

Our second selection was a salad of English Green peas, Sweet Peas and Pea greens with a saffron infused ricotta.

This was Kathy’s favorite. The flavors were bright and insanely fresh and the salad was perfectly dressed. The saffron ricotta was a very creative compliment.

Our final dish was a Vietnamese Pork Belly Sandwich with Carrot Sambal, Jalapeno, Cilantro, Onions, Avocado, Aioli and a Field Green and Quinoa sprout salad.

Pork belly sandwich. You can’t hate that. I can’t either. Perhaps a bit too much aioli and it could have used a bit more acidity, maybe pickled daikon, carrot or beets. Otherwise it was delicious.

Our second planned meal was at the Black Cat Bistro. Another local, organic focused eatery, they tout an emphasis on wine pairings with their meals. Our server provided a number of different wine suggestions to go with our meal and each was spot on. I blew it and left the camera at the hotel so I’ve no photos of the meal. Both my meal and Kathy’s were exceptional.

We spent Sunday night at the Caas House Inn & Restaurant in Cayucos. Built in 1867, the Caas house has five beautiful guest rooms priced at $165-$325 per night depending on the season. Their in-house restaurant is headed up by Executive Chef Jensen Lorenzen and is beautifully appointed but not stuffy at all. His ethos for the restaurant is as follows:
"My philosophy is simple; I believe it is important to preserve the traditions of my training, while allowing our cuisine to constantly evolve and improve. In my opinion, this means beginning each dish with the best the season has to offer and adding to it only to enhance the natural flavors of each component ingredient.
I'm not trying to redefine fine dining, only interpret it in a way that is appropriate in the context of our region and as it relates to the area's unique terroir. Above all, I do my best to respect the work of our local farmers and provide our guests with a memorable dining experience."
Many of the restaurants herbs and vegetables are grown on site in the Caas House’s own beautiful gardens the remainder are locally purchased or foraged.

Kathy’s meal began with an Asparagus Soup with Dungeness Crab, Potato, Fennel & Chive. The texture of the soup was like satin and it was perfectly seasoned. Apologies for the dimly lit or missing photos to follow but I didn’t want to be “that guy” taking flash photos in a quiet restaurant and Asparagus soup though does not photograph well at all.

Her next dish was a Foie Gras “Au Torchon” atop a Thyme Shortbread with Rhubarb, Nasturtium, Cherries, a Marcona Almond Crumble and a Balsamic reduction.

She finished up with a Suckling Pig “Crepinette” served with an Herb Bread Pudding, Local Morel Mushrooms, Artichoke, Grilled Wild Onion, Fermented Garlic Cloves and a Maderia – Pork Jus.

My meal began with selection of House Cured Charcuterie consisting of Mishima Ranch Bresaola, Pimenton Coppa, Wagyu Pastrami, Blood Sausage, Sopresatta, Pozo Proscuitto and Lardo wrapped Kumquats.

Some really excellent small batch creations here. I was particularly fond of the Blood Sausage and Wagyu Pastrami.

My next dish was a Cayucos Abalone Risotto with Saffron-Abalone Nage, a Salmon-Dill Mousse, Zucchini, Meyer Lemon, Wild Fennel and Fennel Pollen.

This was an excellent little dish. I usually steer away from risotto in restaurants as they usually disappoint, but this preparation was cooked very well and I’d never had this combination of ingredients and was compelled to try it. A really unique and flavorful dish.

My final selection was a Hearst Ranch Grass-Fed Seared Rib Eye served with a Garlic Fritter with Grilled Cippolini Onion, Broccoli, Spring Carrots, Herb Butter and a Bordelaise.

Absolutely perfectly cooked beef and I could have eaten a dozen of the Cippolini Onions.

The menu is very reasonably priced even with wine pairings. We weren’t feeling up to that and our server selected a bottle of Lone Madrone Syrah to enjoy with our entire meal which worked perfectly.

I’d heartily recommend any and all of these establishments and their contact information can be found below.

Justin Vineyards & Winery
11680 Chimney Rock Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446 USA
Tel: 805.238.6932

Lone Madrone Winery
2485 Highway 46 West
Paso Robles, California 93446
Tel: 805.238.0845

Thomas Hill Organics
Tel: 805.226.5888

Black Cat Bistro
1602 Main Street
Cambria, CA  93428
Tel: 805.927.1600

Caas House Inn & Restaurant
222  N. Ocean Ave
Cayucos, CA 93430
Tel: 805.995.3669

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