The Kobayashi brothers have made Artisan a Central Coast dining destination.
There was no turning back. We only had one more dinner between the Bay Area and L.A., so we had to make it count. It’s always tempting to try something new for the sake of diverse Food GPS coverage. Still, one name kept popping up when we mentioned Paso to locals: Artisan. We ate lunch at Artisan in late 2009, and enjoyed the Kobayashi brothers’ restaurant pretty well, but at some point, we thought that it was better to go for the best available option instead of just chasing something new. It turns out that either dinner is a better Artisan choice than lunch, the restaurant improved since 2009, or both, since our meal was very good.
The glass-fronted space in downtown Paso features an open kitchen, banquette seating, wood floors, drum-shaped lanterns, a bar and overflow dining room. They also promote contributing farmers and ranchers on a blackboard menu.
They started us with crusty Hush-Harbor Artisan Bakery sourdough bread and butter.
Texas Quail Fry with cucumber coleslaw and honey bbq ($14) reminded me of a Dean Fearing classic. Whether it was an homage or not didn’t much matter. Either way, the tiny birds were juicy, with supple fried skins and a sauce that contributed sweet tang.
Abalone is a top local ingredient along California’s Central Coast, with firm meat packed in shiny, almost psychedelic seashells. Their Abalone Tostada ($17) is an inspired application, pairing firm meat with creamy avocado, crusty pork belly carnitas, arugula, frisée, pink edged radish, and pico de gallo with crunchy green peppers, all on crisp blue corn tortilla.
Chanterelle toast ($14) arrived on cakey house-made brioche with soft poached egg that oozed yolk when punctured with a knife.
Smoky bacon, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a sauce of cream, white wine, and garlic added depth.
Hanger Steak ($26) was seemingly simple, but especially good, with a winning sear, rosy meat and accompaniments like seasonal asparagus spears, a bucket of savory bacon tots, wine-rich sauce Bordelaise, and sweet pearl onions.
Our meal had a lot of highlights, but T&T Ranch Raised Pork ($19) was the powerhouse plate. Artisan chef/co-owner Chris Kobayashi brines his loins with star anise, clove, apple juice, orange and of course salt for 24 hours until the lean meat achieves a sweet, almost ham-like intensity. They grilled the loin to medium rare, keeping it a little rosy inside, and allowing what little fat rimmed the edges of the meat to achieve caramelization. They spooned on savory shallot-wild mushroom pan juice and plated with a crisp skinned sweet potato. They “smothered” the yam with house made pork sausage and molten Barely Buzzed cheese, which carries coffee grinds and lavender on the rind. Crunchy, smoky pecans provided the finishing touch.
We ordered a deluxe Artisan Flight ($25) of red wines to enjoy with our meal. Chateau Margene 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon was the sweetest, RN Estate 2008 Symphonie des Cepages (Cab Sauv/Merlot/Cab Franc/Petit Verdot) the most balanced, and Jacob Toft 2005 Sarah’s Cuvee (Syrah/Mourvedre/Grenache) the most tannic.
We were already full, but who can resist Churros y Chocolate ($9)? Artisan’s chefs presented cinnamon and sugar dusted churros as donut like rings, with soft, custardy cores and crispy ridges. A demitasse of molten dark chocolate joined the party.
We almost always have the urge to try something new and different, especially when traveling outside of L.A. County, but Artisan left us conflicted, since the meal was not only good enough to justify a second stop, it demands a third. Apparently other restaurants must wait.