There are many SLO County chefs I’ve touted over the years, and I wish I could dine in their restaurants weekly. Too bad my wallet isn’t as big as my appetite. But whatever the price, I strive to return at least once every few months. There’s little I love as much as indulging in local cuisine that features the season’s peak fruit, produce, and locally caught fish, prepared by a masterful chef.
My husband Dan and I recently dined at quite a few of those restaurants, inspired by the chefs’ appealing announcements about their new summer menus. Among them, I was quite impressed while dining at Cass House in Cayucos. The seasonal offerings were so delicious I was motivated to devote a column to their new summertime menus, and they certainly deserve the coverage. And I had to pass along some hot tips about Luna Red, Il Cortile, and Artisan.
I cooked professionally over six years and consider myself a good cook, albeit no longer at the pro level. My last professional position was in San Francisco with the famed L.A. chef Wolfgang Puck, which ended in 1990. Fortunately I still enjoy the privilege of visiting local restaurant kitchens when I write about chefs.
That’s why I appreciated it when chef Jensen Lorenzen recently invited me to pack up my knives and join him and his crew in the kitchen at Cass House. We both laughed, probably because he already knew my answer: It’s been far too long since I could handle the workload of a bustling restaurant. A week later, I chose chef Jensen’s dining room to celebrate my June birthday. I was quite impressed by the chef’s new prix fixe menu. Dish after another dish came out in modernistic presentations and concepts that would equal the finest restaurants in San Francisco or New York City. And each original creation was an epicurean treat.
Ever since Dan and I met in 1991, we agreed that we’d rather share an amazing dinner than exchange gifts on holidays. Dining in an extraordinary restaurant is the ideal present for a foodie like me.
The Cass House now offers two choices for a five-course prixe fixe dinner. The new menu features a “hunter/gatherer” or an “agrarian” selection, each of which comes with complements like housemade breads and sorbet. The meal is priced $72 per person with an additional $38 for selected wine pairings, or guests can select a bottle or glass from the wine list. Naturally, Dan and I chose both menus paired with the recommended wines and shared what would be an amazing feast. Grace Lorenzen, the chef’s wife and co-owner, graciously attends to the guests in the dining room. She’s also the house wine expert who can suggest pairings that are celebratory, sensual, or comfortable.
Chef Jensen’s menus showcase the freshest seasonal foods, some of which are biodynamically grown by the cooks in their garden behind the busy kitchen. Although we thought the agrarian choice sounded vegetarian, it’s not. Among our favorite dishes: the spring crudité with house-made ricotta, and garden greens paired with Sorelle Bronca Prosecco; and the Rinconada Farm chicken with mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, and garden artichoke paired with Domaine Audoin Marsannay (French). While the dish sounds ordinary, it soars above the typical offering.
Actually, there wasn’t a dish or complement we didn’t love, like chef Jensen’s artistic take on “fish and chips,” and the housemade breads. If there’s a foodie you love, dinner at Cass House is the perfect gift. Check out their latest menus, or make reservations at casshouseinn.com.
A recent lunch date at Luna Red with Dan provided us with a taste of some excellent new summertime dishes by chef Shaun Behrens. The European-style tapas bar theme, a favorite of mine, is sophisticated, smart, and amazingly healthy. Behrens’ hand-crafted menus of seasonal foods included many new treats. I was particularly impressed by the most delicate yet decadent Dungeness crab “hushpuppies” with avocado remoulade that I’ve ever tasted. If you haven’t been there lately, make your reservations at opentable.com or visit lunaredslo.com.
What’s more exciting than learning about an intriguing new restaurant that’s opening? It’s knowing that there’s an excellent chef behind it: chef Santos MacDonal of Il Cortile in Paso Robles. His wonderful Italian restaurant was a great addition to Paso’s blossoming culinary scene, and he earned accolades nationwide. Chef Santos, who spent more than two decades working in the finest Italian restaurants in Santa Monica, brought their traditional yet modern cuisine to North County. Now this passionate chef has gone back to his Latin American roots with the upcoming opening of La Cosecha Bar & Restaurant. The name means “harvest” in Spanish, and I’ve received no word of the exact menu, but it will focus on the finest Latin cuisines and feature Spanish Cavas and Sangria as well as the fine Paso Robles wines he and his wife Carole respect so much. They will open in July, although I haven’t been provided a date yet.
La Cosecha is two doors away from the new location of Artisan at the corner of Park and Pine streets. Owner and chef Chris Kobayashi and his family recently reopened for business in a prime location across from downtown park, which diners can view from the new sidewalk patio. We can count on the same top-notch modern American cuisine. The Kobayashis take the farm-to-table concept to heart; they focus on local, sustainable, and organic produce, as well as grow some of their own at a local farm. The new, greatly expanded kitchen will allow chef Chris to offer far more mouth-watering attractions from the new wood-burning oven.
Behind the bar, guests can view the glassed-in wine cellar featuring Paso Robles’ most sought after brands, or choose from an expanded cocktail menu of creative drinks. Shandi Kobayashi, Artisan’s wine director, told me the new restaurant was designed entirely by her husband Chris. One fallen tree in Paso Robles was used to make every table top and the bar top. Plus, they added more comfortable booths in the dining room. It’s already been featured in the L.A. Times, so reservations are a must at this new hot spot. Make them in advance at opentable.com or artisanpasorobles.com. I, like their many other fans, can’t wait to taste through the new menus and get to know the new Artisan.
Contact Cuisine Columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.