Artisan offers sharp urban style in homey Paso Robles

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.

Meanwhile, winemakers are hopping up to say hello to a neighbor or a fellow vintner. Wine country visitors seated at tables next to each other end up talking about which wineries to visit and where else to eat, and whether anybody is planning to catch Bob Dylan playing at the fair the next night.

Straightforward steak

AND as we consider main courses, I'm relieved to find there's no rabbit on the menu, as I spent part of the afternoon at the fair watching serious, capable 6-year-old girls in their green, freshly ironed 4-H uniforms present their pet rabbits for judging.

The best main course is straightforward and delicious: a flatiron steak grilled to a perfect medium rare with a dollop of Cabernet butter on top. It comes with fabulous leaf spinach and terrific shoestring potatoes. Nothing revolutionary, but every element is just what it should be. That's what bistro food is all about.

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is cooked more than I like it, but it's very fresh, and served with baby squash and yellow tomato. The ricotta gnocchi that also comes with it, though, seem too heavy for the delicate fish, and an Italian would be hard put to recognize these as descended from the light, fluffy gnocchi that issued from his mother's kitchen.

Kobayashi has some fun with his plates, dressing up pan-roasted "day boat" scallops with purslane, succulent wild herb also called miner's lettuce, or serving Alaskan halibut with organic corn polenta, salsify and "toy box" mushrooms. One of my guests orders chicken primarily because of its accompaniments: white cheddar grits and bourbon gravy, which are both delicious. Too bad the chicken is so limp and unappealing.

But eggplant and heirloom tomato lasagna is one of the best dishes of the night, an individual casserole of eggplant layered with tomatoes, bufala mozzarella, roasted Italian peppers and sweet basil leaves. Talk about comfort food.

A little editing

IN general, starters are stronger, because the kitchen tends to muddle up the main courses with too many ingredients and too much sauce, which, I have to say, has practically become the definition of California cuisine. All the recipes need is a little editing -- snipping out that extra ingredient or two, bringing flavors into focus -- for the menu to really shine.

It would be a good thing for the wine too. Embroidering over the main ingredient with so many competing flavors doesn't do any favors to a fine bottle of Viognier or Syrah. The flatiron steak works precisely because you have only the beef and the understated Cabernet butter to compete with the wine.

Sounds too plain? Not when you get the wine and the dish going together. The beef's simplicity allows the complexities of the wine to do a star turn around the palate.

On the other hand, this kitchen must have a master's degree in frying, because everything fried is just about perfect. And that's not easy. The French fries, served piping hot and golden, are scarfed down by big and little kids alike. It's worth noting that Artisan is also open for lunch, when it serves an Angus burger with Vermont white Cheddar and other sandwiches, with some dishes from the dinner menu.

Service is friendly and to the point, some of the best on this part of the coast, from waiters who know both the food and the wine. If you feel your bottle would show better if it were just a couple of degrees cooler, it's not a problem. A bucket filled with ice and water will be provided. But on these scorching summer days, sometimes nothing slakes your thirst better than beer, and Artisan offers half a dozen craft beers on tap.

The best dessert is a real bargain at $4 -- moist brownies made from Scharffen Berger's deep dark chocolate. The other sweets are just that -- sweet, except for the sumptuous, warm peach and blackberry crumble served in an individual casserole.

Better to wander out into the night, finishing off your evening with a stroll around Paso's square, and a nostalgic dip into small-town life.



Rating: *

Location: 1401 Park St., Paso Robles, (805) 237-8084;

Ambience: Wine country bistro from brothers Chris Kobayashi, the executive chef, and Michael Kobayashi, the general manager. The crowd is a mix of locals, winemakers and tourists drinking Central Coast labels with contemporary American cuisine that emphasizes organic and sustainably raised ingredients.

Service: Friendly and relaxed.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $7 to $13; main courses, $19 to $32; sides, $4; desserts, $4 to $8.

Best dishes: Crispy calamari with malted vinegar aioli, chilled tomato gazpacho, smoked Gouda and Porter fondue, pan-roasted Dungeness crab cakes, herb-marinated flatiron steak with spinach and shoestring potatoes, eggplant and heirloom tomato lasagna, buttermilk mashed potatoes, warm peach and blackberry crumble with vanilla ice cream, Scharffen Berger chocolate brownies.

Wine list: Smart, small list of mostly Central Coast wines. Wine flights, $15 to $28. Corkage, $10, two-bottle limit.

Best table: One of the booths facing the open kitchen.

Details: Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Full bar. Ample street parking, plus parking in public lot north on Park Street.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.

** Outstanding.
*** Excellent.
* Very good.
* Good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.