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Wine country cosmopolitan

A young chef at Artisan in Paso Robles reels in Central Coast locals and winery tourists.

August 08, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

WITH several hotels in the works, plus a new luxe lodging where guests are offered a horse and carriage to take them to their dinner restaurant, Paso Robles seems slated to become the Healdsburg of the Central Coast wine country, a picturesque and convenient center for touring.

Since I last visited the town about 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo, the streets lining the grassy central square have been spruced up, the earthquake damage from the 2003 tremor repaired, and some new businesses have moved in, including the 6-month-old restaurant Artisan, which is where, if I were staying at the high-end Hotel Cheval, I'd tell old Chester to take me. Giddyap!

Actually, I walked across the tree-shaded square and two blocks north to the corner Art Deco building that is Artisan's address. Early in the evening, the sun still streams through the windows, lighting up the empty green wine bottles a local ironworker used to construct a screen between the wine bar and a small, back dining room.

The wall near the kitchen is painted a cool, pale cucumber -- a good idea in this summer heat -- and the design features dark wood and black accents, giving Artisan the crisp urban look of a contemporary bistro.

It feels very much like a bistro too. The place is full of life and energy even on a weeknight when the California Mid-State Fair is in full swing, usually a slow period for local restaurants. But not here. The tables are full, with more people waiting -- or hanging out in the bar, sampling any of two dozen wines by the glass.

Waiters are rushing back and forth from the open kitchen with plates of sweet, glazed barbecued baby back pork ribs and bowls of gazpacho.

No need to wonder if the chef is in: You can see Chris Kobayashi, a fresh-faced 26-year-old and 2002 graduate of California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, who used to cook behind the stoves at Robin's in Cambria. Artisan is the joint project of Chris (known as chef Koby) and his brother Michael, a music business alum who runs the front of the house with his wife, Shandi, who is the wine director.

The menu lists textbook California cuisine and carries a statement at the bottom promising local and organic produce whenever possible and "proteins that are wild caught or sustainably farmed and contain no growth hormones or antibiotics." In an agricultural county such as this one, that's a claim that can't be made casually.

While we look over the wine list, we order fried calamari for the table. I see many familiar names -- Alban, Qupé, Justin, Tablas Creek and Pax, exactly the labels you look forward to finding on any serious Central Coast wine list. And though this one may not be very deep in older vintages, it makes up for that with the chance to taste wines by some of the Central Coast's most lauded Rhône Rangers.

I must have tried more than two dozen versions of fried calamari just this year, and I can tell you that Artisan's is terrific: tender pieces of squid, including the tentacles, encased in a light and very crisp batter crust. It's served with a lovely malted vinegar aioli with just the right consistency and a cocktail sauce accentuated with a little chipotle chile.

Another starter, smoked Gouda and Porter fondue, comes in an adorable cast-iron pot that's set over a flame to keep it hot. Using smoked Gouda instead of the usual Gruyère or Emmentaler makes for a bolder flavored fondue, and it comes with garlic toast, broccolini and andouille sausage for dipping. This is definitely for sharing, unless you're planning to make it dinner.

Pan-roasted Dungeness crab cakes are good too, packed with shredded crab and served with another aioli, this one flavored with capers and thyme.

Seared yellowfin tuna "tartare" is cut like sashimi and escorted to the table with fried green tomatoes. The tomatoes are the best thing about the dish. Seared tuna has become such a cliché it's hard to take seriously. That said, this is a respectable version.

When Kobayashi cuts loose and does something unexpected, things get interesting. I loved his beautiful, deep red gazpacho made from really ripe puréed tomatoes garnished with a swirl of lemon-infused olive oil. This is the perfect appetizer for a smoldering Paso night.

Ale-battered gulf prawns are perked up with a little peppadew jam made from the South African pepper. One night, though, when the salad arrives -- butter lettuce strewed with tiny braised beets, Point Reyes blue cheese and candied walnuts -- I take a bite and realize the lettuce leaves are naked. They're not wearing a scrap of dressing. Oops. When we point it out, the server looks concerned, goes back to the kitchen and brings out another, this time with a perky house vinaigrette. Much better.

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