- PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
- LOBSTER FOR THE WIN: The chefs' butter poached lobster with Bloomsdale spinach, potato fondant, and sauce perigeux is guaranteed to delight.
People constantly ask where they can enjoy a unique dining experience to celebrate a special occasion, and I’m happy to help them. But lately my response surprises those who wouldn’t have dreamed they would find an epicurean meal at a winery. There’s only one winery in SLO or Santa Barbara County that can boast five-star dining on the estate: Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles. They offer such impressive dining that even those traveling farther south will find it well worth a detour from Highway 101 for an unforgettable meal by chef William Torres and his passionate team.
When I relocated here from San Francisco with my husband, Dan Hardesty, 18 years ago, it was one of the most exciting moves in my life. I began writing about our wine-growing regions as they grew from a handful of wineries then to a full-blown wine region now boasting hundreds of excellent wineries.
With the growth of the wine industry, an influx of good restaurants naturally grew with them. Now the mainstream media constantly compares Paso Robles to Napa Valley wine country. It’s true that we have much in common with northern wine regions. And like Napa, it took several years for the food scene to rise to a level where restaurants can be compared to San Francisco. Now, there are many outstanding restaurants I can recommend quite highly.
The Justin estate was founded by Justin Baldwin who started building his brand in 1981. He has since sold the estate to the family owned Fiji Water, but Baldwin remains the figurehead for this renowned wine and food destination. He founded the Restaurant at Justin, originally named Deborah’s Room, in 1998. Few Central Coast wineries can operate any type of restaurant, but that doesn’t lessen the prestige Justin estate earned for promoting so many talented chefs in its professional kitchen over the past 16 years.
Today, the Restaurant at Justin is directed by the creative William “Will” Torres, who started as sous chef in 2005 when he was hired by Deborah Baldwin and executive chef Ryan Swarthout. When Swarthout left in 2009, Torres was the natural successor. The ardent chef graduated from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena in 2003. While attending school, the aspiring young cook landed ideal internships at Spago, Patina, the Playboy Mansion, and Aubergine in L.A. Following graduation, he began his career at Koi in West Hollywood.
- PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
- CHEF TIME: Executive chef William Torres and sous chef Chris New often visit with guests at The Restaurant at Justin.
At Justin, Torres and his enthusiastic team of chefs are making multi-course dinners that can only be described as epicurean from start to finish. Honestly, before now it never occurred to me to review the restaurant. I must say Torres clinched the deal from the first casual lunch he prepared for me. It happened during the transitional phase when the winery was sold and underwent a complete renovation, from the winery to the restaurant and kitchen. During the interval there was only patio service with a “picnic lunch menu.” We enjoyed amazingly good sandwiches served with a side salad, and cookie, all freshly-made in Torres’ kitchen. Even then it was a meal worth driving over for; it was deliciously farm fresh.
Their spectacular dining room and patio is surrounded by lush vineyards over rolling hillsides. And the weather is perfect most times of the year. They offer an exemplary wine list that not only features Justin wines but fine wines from around the world.
But it is, indeed, the modern, upscale cuisine that lures me back most of all. The menu changes constantly to showcase foods at the peak of the season. And it’s very likely they are rarely repeated twice, that’s why I won’t dwell on every course I enjoyed. What’s most impressive is Torre’s passion and commitment to serving the best ingredients available for his contemporary, upscale menus that I’ve enjoyed.
“The menus are a collaboration of ideas from the chef team at Justin,” Torres explained, crediting sous chef Chris New, chef tournant William Ouderkirk, and chef de partie Tim Barakat. “It’s always an exciting time when a new menu is created. There’s lots of tasting and re-tasting. We hire excellent chefs to ensure our menus provide an amazing experience for our guests.”
During one delightful dinner when sous chef Chris New headed the kitchen, Dan and I relished five course meals titled “pescatarian” and “omnivore.” We never realized Torres wasn’t in-house and, it’s clear, his team has his back. We were impressed by the succulent carnaroli risotto with Pozo Tomme and black truffles, and Cervena venison loin with parsnip, oats, onion, and coffee. The expertly paired Justin wine courses we ordered with each meal have been sublime; they so perfectly complemented the cuisine.
According to Torres, the menus change subtly with each seasonal menu, especially now that they will be able to harvest vegetables and herbs from an estate garden planted by Bill and Barbara Spencer from the prestigious Windrose Farm in Paso.
“This is the best culinary team I’ve had here,” Torres said candidly. “Everyone is very passionate, smart, and hardworking, my chef team and the Spencers.”
I must admit that the epicurean multi-course dinner is not affordable for those on tight budgets. But you can dine quite reasonably at lunch whether you choose one dish or several, or visit between lunch and dinner for the “patio bites” menu.
Torres describes the cuisine as internationally and locally inspired, prepared using both modern and traditional techniques. “We want the guests to remember our food and to be blown away! Food is very emotional. I have tons of great memories of growing up cooking with my grandfather and mother, and great meals at Eleven Madison Park, Quince, and Bar Tartine.”
You can stop in for an exciting multi-course lunch menu featuring many excellent choices on Friday and Saturday, or during brunch on Sunday. The Restaurant at Justin is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and you can make reservations at opentable.com or by calling Justin Vineyards at 591-3224. Visit the website at justinwine.com for detailed information on the winery, inn, and restaurant.
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.