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As SLO county opens back up, it's time to support our small local food and drink establishments

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As I write this column, there are food and drink businesses that just found out they could open their doors for dine-in services after more than two months, and they are currently closed once again—some even boarding up their windows—due to threats of violence that came on the heels of protests.

Before I continue on a couple of pleasant dining experiences finally granted to us after months of COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders, I just want to say that I hope by the time this is printed, our restaurateurs, wineries, and food establishments can get back on their feet after dealing with so many setbacks.

Wine and dine

My friend invited me to lunch at Tolosa winery recently, which I believe is one of the first wineries in the Edna Valley able to provide a dine-in experience, and I couldn't wait to sit somewhere other than at my own dining room table or backyard picnic bench. The drive to Tolosa is a treat: wide open spaces lined with wineries and farms. And the gorgeous property is a cherry on top.

That wonderful scent of stainless steel wine tanks filled with tons of grape juice waiting for a promotion to wine, and vines lush with green grape leaves. I could smell it when I was dropped off for my 1:30 p.m. weekend reservation with my friend.

Tolosa had the coronavirus guidelines covered. The training at Tolosa is something I found extraordinary. Upon arrival, I was calmly asked some virus security questions—"Do you have a fever?" and all that jazz.

LUNCH AT TOLOSA At Tolosa Winery in Edna Valley, a recent meal by LouLou Cheese Girl includes sandwiches and a cheese box out the picturesque terrace. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • LUNCH AT TOLOSA At Tolosa Winery in Edna Valley, a recent meal by LouLou Cheese Girl includes sandwiches and a cheese box out the picturesque terrace.
UNDER THE OLIVE TREES Kimberly Sabella, an estate host at Tolosa, was our server for the most divine lunch I have had in a long time. Yes, they are open for dine-in! - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • UNDER THE OLIVE TREES Kimberly Sabella, an estate host at Tolosa, was our server for the most divine lunch I have had in a long time. Yes, they are open for dine-in!

I'm super healthy, I said. (I have been eating my greens, taking my vitamin C, and jump roping, which has made a comeback in my house).

Then the host staff in cloth masks went over the rules, such as you have to wear a mask on the grounds, but not at the table. We were seated under the olive trees outdoors, overlooking the vines. Maliysa Lou of LouLou Cheese Girl, whose gorgeous cheese boards our area has grown to know and love, was the chosen artisan food truck for our dine-in lunch, and the dynamic Kimberly Sabella, estate host, was our server from Tolosa.

Sabella explained that we order food first by simply checking the boxes on the paper menu. We order wine after that. We picked up our food from Lou's turquoise and white wedding trailer, as instructed, wrapped in to-go containers, which made me think: "A travel vehicle full of cheese must be a mirage."

On top of that, spending time with my friend in person (and not on Zoom) was almost too good to be true. I was thrilled to see all 20 or so tables were fully booked. It felt like a special day at a winery, only better. We ordered a glass of the Tolosa classic Burgundy-style 1772 Chardonnay to start and split a Fig Me—double cream brie sandwich made with fig jam, prosciutto, apples, and baby arugula with balsamic glaze and sea salt—and a Londoner—English cotswold cheddar sandwich with pickles, tomato, spicy mayo, romaine, and everything seasoning. We followed with an aromatic full-bodied glass of silky 2015 Perinet priorat, the deep and mineral blend of grenache, carignan, syrah, and cab.

Tolosa had the guidelines down to a science. Our lunch experience was capped at an hour and a half, so my friend and I planned to do it again. Because when you haven't seen someone in a while, you need more time than 90 minutes. We said our goodbyes, as the Tolosa staff went into heavy duty between-seatings sanitation.

COLORFUL CHEESE BOX LouLou Cheese Girl, Maliysa Lou made sure I came home with a box of cheese and charcuterie. It lasted five minutes on my kitchen counter. My boys even ate the flowers. I almost lost a finger trying to secure my share of the prosciutto. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • COLORFUL CHEESE BOX LouLou Cheese Girl, Maliysa Lou made sure I came home with a box of cheese and charcuterie. It lasted five minutes on my kitchen counter. My boys even ate the flowers. I almost lost a finger trying to secure my share of the prosciutto.

Rustic Fire

I was so grateful to find out Rustic Fire was open again for dine-in. This Paso Robles restaurant is co-owned by Jonathan Gannon and Connie Kahanu, siblings who grew up on the Central Coast, and features brick-oven pizza, salads, local wine, and craft beer. They have the best kids' meal around, and when we leave town to drive north, we usually stop and get some pies and gelato to-go.

On this day, we had just finished hours of paddle boat action and hiking at Santa Margarita Lake, and we were all craving pizza. Rustic Fire's staff is super friendly (and is following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines). The place is cool and airy, screens playing the Food Channel (since we don't have any sports to watch right now).

Among our delightful perfect-crust pizzas and cream sodas, we ordered a completely original pizza: The Red Hot Buffalo, with spicy buffalo wing sauce, mozzarella, buffalo marinated chicken, red onions, carrots, celery, spicy crust, and an after-bake ranch drizzle. It was my distance-learning middle-schooler's idea.

"Can we just try something new?" he said out of the blue and chose the wildest, craziest concoction on the menu.

I highly recommend this type of behavior to free you from that quarantine mindset.

I had a hard time looking out the window toward the Paso Fairgrounds, knowing the Mid-State Fair has been canceled, and I made a wish upon a star that somehow everything would go back to normal.

It's time to eat out. Δ

Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is ready to go out and about. Reach her at bgiuffre@newtimesslo.com.

Editor's Note: This article was edited from the print version, at a source's request. 06/24/20

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