Paso Robles is exactly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Highway 101. I like to break up the drive by spending the night there, and have dinner at Artisan, one of those restaurant treasures you never expect to find outside of the Bay Area. The kitchen makes a sincere effort to find and use local ingredients and they know how to handle them. Mild Paso lamb makes a surprisingly light minestrone ($12), full of al dente vegetables and tender bits of meat in an elegantly clear meat broth, a revelation. A salad of bacony fried pigs ear and curly spinach topped with an orange yolked fried egg ($12), leads nicely to a surprisingly full flavored, fat laced, grass fed, Hearst Ranch flatiron steak ($26) with perfect skinny fries, a buttery red wine and shallot pan sauce, and sauteed escarole and chard (I saw these at the farmers market on the plaza the next morning). And, I got to have house made butter pecan ice cream for dessert. We drank a balanced French style local pinot noir–08 Windward; a pleasant Spanish style red from Bodegas Paso Robles, 07 (whose tasting room is a block away), and a lovely, strawberry scented, J. Dusi Zinafandel, all local, all by the glass.
Painted white, with white linen table cloths, a wine bar in the front and an open kitchen along the side, the six year old restaurant is modern and airy, and just where you want to be after a long drive.
Of course Paso is wine country, though many of the local wines I sampled possessed that big, clunky style that I thought California had left behind. But bless everyone who comes to taste, and to see the gorgeous landscape of rolling hills dotted with old oaks, because they make a place like Artisan viable.
As for overnight accommodation, I am partial to the funky old Paso Robles Inn in the middle of town, where you can get a room with a hot tub on your own patio or terrace, fed by natural hot springs.
The drive from Paso south just gets prettier, especially if you take the 154 cut off from 101 at Los Olivos on the hilly Chumash highway which drops you into Santa Barbara, where a stop at La Super-Rica Taqueria is mandatory. Julia Child put this unassuming little joint on the culinary map. In the 80‘s when she lived in Santa Barbara, Julia waited in line, just like everyone else, watching fresh tortillas being made through the window. I don’t think the line has ever stopped. But a fifteen minute wait at Super Rica (the line moves slowly but steadily) is worth any inconvenience. Their unique tacos and other antojitos, enriched with cream, mild cheese, bacon and chorizo, are indeed rico–rich–but so carefully constructed, their affect is clean and bright, voluptuous but not heavy.
First timers should go for #16 the Super Rica Especial ($6.80), roasted dark green pasilla chiles and bits of moist, spicy pork tossed together on the griddle and topped with dabs of mild melted cheese. The balance is uncanny, especially when piled on 3 little fine-ground corn tortillas, hot from the griddle. These tender, fragrant tortillas make all the taco dishes soar, notably a daily special, tacos de hongos, in which tortillas laid flat on a plastic plate are smothered in creamed mushrooms scented with oregano-like epazote and red chile sauce. Frankly, I can’t think of a tastier morsel of food.
Even tamales are delicate here, flat, soft, unwrapped and sauced;, as was a daily special filled with chorizo and topped with creamy tomato tinged sauce. Two of us devoured four items. I wouldn’t hesitate to over order here. Portions are not huge and who knows when you will get back?
Though I have yet to find the ideal place to stay–I’m checking out the independently owned, art deco Shangri-la next–Santa Monica proves to be the only area in or around Los Angeles where walking is embraced and encouraged. I strolled south from the Santa Monica pier to Venice along the beach on a paved dedicated walking path–about 2 1/2 miles– and headed up to Venice’s Abbott Kinney Boulevard, where a groovy, relatively new groups of restaurants, cafes, galleries, clothing shops and design studios draw big crowds. Brunch at breezy indoor-outdoor Gjellina, the most lauded of the new generation of eateries, was pleasant enough, though this super popular restaurant did not strike me as a culinary destination.
Continuing your walk east on Abbott Kinney, turn right on Venice Blvd and then turn left on Dell, and you’ll get to Venice’s namesake pedestrian hideaway of canals lined with cottages and gardens, arching bridges and row boats tied up to tiny wooden piers. In the bright sun and clean air of the Pacific coast, every vista looked post card perfect. Don’t let your imagination run wild. The smallest cottages start at $2 million.
That night, at a double birthday party, I ate at Michael’s. One of the original creators of California Cuisine, Michael McCarty opened it in 1979 with Jonathan Waxman as chef. His dead simple crisp skinned roasted chicken with skinny french fries, watercress and tarragon butter, became an icon of the genre.I hadn’t set foot in Michael’s for 30 years but it felt exactly the same, with its tented outdoor garden patio, comfortable even at night, and an indoor display of important modern Los Angeles artwork, some of the best by McCarty’s wife, Kim.
The food at the birthday meal struck me as more French than California, with rich sauces on quail, squab and lamb, and multi-faceted preparations. I noticed that the roast chicken with pommes frites remains on both the lunch and dinner menus ($21/$34).
The two iconoclastic caterers turned restaurateurs, Vinny Dotolo and John Shook, who gave us Animal in West Hollywood–a funky if brilliant little place that seduces its clientele to eat way too many small plates of albeit conscientiously sourced animal fat–have just opened a new place, a couple of blocks away, called Son of a Gun. Son of a Gun’s menu uses fish and seafood the same way Animal uses meat, as a springboard to create outrageously rich and utterly irresistible small dishes. The difference is that the fish version has potential for delivering a lighter meal. If you restrain yourself, you can actually put together a clean dinner from the long list of nightly offerings. But who would want to hold back?
As at Animal, the plates that jump out at you on first visit, are pulled from boiling oil: the sinful deep fried shrimp toast sandwich with herbs and sriracha mayo ($11); the fried chicken sandwich ($11) with juiciest chicken ever, mitigated by bread and butter pickle slaw; thick Kennebec potato chips with the best pimento cheese dip I’ve ever tasted ($10); or fried belly clams ($15)– soft shell clams fried whole with the bivalve “liver” adding extra clam flavor–with tartar sauce.
Or, they are bathed in butter: a threebite lobster roll on a little bun fried in butter ($7); Santa Barbara spot shrimp, horizontally split in half and poached in butter ($9 each).
Alternate these with a salad-like dish: shaved ribbons of purple carrot with watercress and a pool of thin, herbal green goddess dressing ($12); or butter lettuce tossed with bits of smoked trout, fried trout skin, and grapefruit segments, in a sheer buttermilk dressing ($13). These dishes are really interstitial because the brilliant stuff is the rich stuff.
Which brings us to a non-fish dish at Son of a Gun that alone is worth a trip from San Francisco: a big platter of dewy curls of Benton’s country ham, a floral, fruity, salty Virginia-style prosciutto, and airy, hot, deep fried corn meal beignets otherwise known as hush puppies ($16). Break them in half, pile on honey butter and a rosette of the ham. Oh my.
For dessert, don’t miss tart, creamy, frozen lime yogurt with graham crumble and a swatch of toasted meringue–burned on the outside, sticky gooey inside–on the side of the bowl. Scoop up some of all three in each bite.
I’m coming back to delve deeper into the more esoteric dishes on the daily list of 30 plus items. Meticulous hand crafted cocktails add another dimension to the meals.
Without traffic, the drive from Santa Monica to Son of a Gun,, near West Hollywood, takes about fifteen minutes. The drive from San Francisco takes six hours on Interstate 5,. Either way, better reserve way ahead. Son of a Gun is small, super casual and very popular.
Artisan, 1401 Park Street, Paso Robles 805 237-8084
Taqueria Super-Rica, 622 N. Milpas Street, Santa Barbara 805 963-4940
Son of a Gun, 8370 W. Third Strett, Los Angeles 323 782-9033