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A North County favorite moves south

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Ever since I moved to SLO County in 1996, locals have told me how much they love chef Ian McPhee. Their food love affair began with his first restaurant in Cambria named Ian’s, and his followers remained loyal when he relocated to Templeton as McPhee’s. With his popular restaurant an easy drive from Paso Robles wine country, locals competed with wine aficionados and tourists who filled every seat and bar stool in the house. They converged there to feast on beef, pork, fowl, or seafood, and wash down those generous meals with local wines chosen from the excellent wine list at McPhee’s.

I’ve experienced great food and wine pairings at McPhee’s that seemed a match created in heaven’s kitchen. Yet, like others living south of Cuesta Grade, I lamented that I couldn’t visit as often as I liked. It’s a long climb over the Cuesta Grade to get there, enjoy a feast with fine wines and then have to drive back. Food lovers’ prayers have been answered since McPhee cloned his Templeton restaurant in Avila Beach. Now he’s got all the bases covered with his new restaurant only minutes away from the South County wine regions.

The chef told me he toyed with the idea 
of another McPhee’s over the years. But it wasn’t until he struck a deal with local entrepreneur Rob Rossi that he decided to bring it to fruition.

“We’re trying to provide people the feeling of comfort we have in Templeton. We brought in the same finishing guy to recreate the McPhee look,” he explained. “We’re not trying to be different and I think people are comfortable with that.” Rossi not only asked McPhee to take over the restaurant, he made him food and beverage director for the entire golf course.

Soon, the new building at the golf resort will provide the snack bar and lunch service. And if demand grows, McPhee’s restaurant will begin offering lunches this summer. They also offer wedding services in their beautiful locale beside the Pacific Ocean. McPhee is already working with Archie McLaren on dining events for the Central Coast Wine Classic this coming July. McLaren invited McPhee to be one of the star chefs at the prestigious Hearst Castle dinner this summer.

From the first moment I walked into the new restaurant, formerly Mulligan’s and the Cove at the Avila Beach Golf Resort, it was clearly a clone of McPhee’s original. Everything from the menu and the wine list to the tablecloths and friendly service gave it that comfortable vibe that has made McPhee’s the local favorite it has always been.

My husband Dan and I began dinner with the grilled artichoke with chipotle mayonnaise, irresistible to the last, tender leaf. We also shared the delicious ruby grapefruit and butter lettuce salad with Point Reyes bleu cheese, spicy nuts, and Port wine vinaigrette, starters ranging from $7.95 to $14.95.

- MCPHEE’S AVILA BEACH:  6440 Ana Bay Drive - Avila Beach, 595-4001 -
  • MCPHEE’S AVILA BEACH: 6440 Ana Bay Drive Avila Beach, 595-4001
Next we enjoyed Dan’s order of the cedar-planked salmon with HMR sweet mustard-herb butter, roasted pepper agrodolce on grilled scallion, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes ($24); although not rare as ordered, it was still very tasty.  Typically, I ordered the best steak on the menu: oak-grilled prime ribeye chop served with tres salsas, and a goat cheese-stuffed poblano chile, with jalapeno cheese mashed potatoes ($39).

Although the quality was there, and nearly every chef I know 
prefers a ribeye steak, I’ll never, ever forget one McPhee’s nightly special: the bone-in filet mignon I had in Templeton last year. Hands-down it was the best steak I’ve had anywhere. Sadly, it’s too costly to offer on the regular menu. We also shared a dessert, which we rarely order, and scarfed down every bite of the chocolate decadence cake with caramel-lime sauce, everything made in-house (all desserts are $7.95).

Our next visit, I waxed poetic over the awesome starter, smoky Kung Fu baby-back ribs with McPhee’s secret Asian sauce ($13.95). It was so yummy I considered ordering the baby back ribs entrée. But instead I enjoyed the generously sized, oak-grilled, certified Angus all-natural burger with white Cheddar cheese, served with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion with super-crispy shoestring fries ($14.95). Dan loved the “Original Ian’s Salad” with baby greens, goat cheese, bleu cheese, bacon, bay shrimp, and balsamic vinaigrette ($9.95). Better yet was Dan’s entrée of the macadamia-crusted mahi mahi with ginger, sesame vinaigrette with Asian slaw, wasabi, chive mashed potatoes and spicy cucumber salad ($23).

The wine list features nearly 100 selections from the best producers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, quite reasonably priced for a restaurant. Corkage is $20 but waived if you buy a bottle from their list. For the past three years, renowned winemaker Jim Clendenen has made McPhee’s house wines, a solid buy if you’re on a budget. The choices include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, $9 a glass, and a great buy at $30 a bottle.

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Restaurant manager Reggie Greenwood, who has worked for owner Rossi for 12 years, said the neighbors are quite pleased about the opening of McPhee’s Avila Beach.

“Most of our locals are original customers of Ian’s, and having him here gives people incentive to drive to Avila Beach,” he noted. “This is a beautiful place that needed a good restaurant, and Rob [Rossi] wanted a destination restaurant.”

Known longest as Mulligan’s, a café and bar for golfers at the resort, for a short time it was named Marre’s and then the Cove. Fans of chef Wendy Wickstrom, who prepared upscale cuisine when it was the Cove, will be pleased to hear she’s still running this busy kitchen. I always chided Greenwood for the lack of signage because so many Diablo employees and temps drive past twice daily, yet they don’t know this great restaurant is there. For that I give Rossi high praise for bringing in one of this region’s most popular chefs who has helped people find this dinner house without directional signs.
   McPhee’s not done with the Avila Beach concept yet. He’s planning to expand the patio for dining, and add fire pits. Even as it stands, he’s already made this hidden gem a destination for food and wine lovers.
 
You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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