America's current obsession with the farm to table movement may have its roots in 1970s Northern California, where it's still going strong. After spending three food and wine intensive days in Paso Robles, though, I can say quite assuredly that the movement is alive, well and thriving along the Central Coast as well.
Now mind you, the organizers of a press junket, designed to focus attention on the high points of wine and food in the Paso Robles area, are not likely to take their guests to the local BK or Denny's for a bite to eat in between stops on the farm and wine trail. Nonetheless, even wearing my full strength skepticles (yes, that's a play on skeptical and spectacles, not the other word I know you're thinking of right now) for the duration of the trip, I left Paso impressed by the quality and ambition — and mission — in evidence at several of the eateries we visited.
While, as that suggests, there were multiple culinary highlights on the trip, one of the meals that most satisfied my constant quest for deliciousness happened to be among the simplest, and the most casual.
The Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro first opened its doors for business just over a year ago, on January 15, 2009. The business actually has its own roots on the farm, for that's exactly what the primary business is at Thomas Hill Organics: farming. Husband and wife owners, Joe and Debbie Thomas, started their farm about five years ago, launching a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program a year-and-a-half later. The bistro, located just off the central square in Paso Robles, is simply the newest facet of the farm's organic growth.
While all of the food served at Thomas Hill is locally produced — including meat and poultry from local farms, fish from nearby fisheries and bread from Paso-based bakeries — it's in the produce arena that the bistro really sets itself at the forefront of the locavore movement. All of the fruits and vegetables served at the restaurant are grown and produced on the Thomas Hill Organics farm, from the leafy greens to the avocados, the kumquats to the strawberries, even the almonds and garlic. In keeping with the farm-fresh, seasonally driven menu, the cooking at THO — even though the lengthy menu descriptors may suggest otherwise — is based in simplicity, allowing the quality and flavor of the ingredients to take center stage.
Among the appetizers that were served and shared family-style at our table were (above, from top to bottom) a Shaved Cauliflower Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette and Candied Kalamata; Early Spring Pea Salad with House Saffron Ricotta and Mint Italian Salsa Verde; Bagna Cauda of Purple Potatoes and Farmed Fresh Hard Boiled Eggs; and (below) Thomas Hill Arugula Salad with Blood Oranges and Bacon Avocado. Everything was impeccably fresh and well prepared, but that cauliflower salad may just have been the single tastiest thing I ate on our entire trip — eye-openingly delicious.
The open fireplace located in the Thomas Hill's courtyard patio doubles as a wood-smoker and, later at night, a wood-fired pizza oven. Those of you that have been following my Paso trail may recognize the shot below as a variation of one I posted during the trip itself.
While that earlier shot may have seemed like gratuitous bacon porn when presented on its own, it was inspired by my chosen main lunch course, the Winter Sandwich of Wood Burning Oven Smoked Bacon, Sauteed Broccoli Raab, Pickled Raisins, Avocado and Roasted Garlic Aioli, served with a Field Green Salad (pictured below). The sandwich was more than satisfying, the bacon more primally pork-y than intensely smoked and salty. I don't know if there's such a thing as West Coast-style bacon, but the bacon at Thomas Hill, as well as one or two other examples I had during our trip, was meatier, cut thicker and far less intense in its cure and brine than most East Coast artisan bacon I've eaten.
Rather than beating-up a not entirely wine focused group with a barrage of winery visits, the organizers of our Paso junket were savvy in combining events, often bringing one or more winery owners and/or winemakers to us. The approach carried with it the added benefit of allowing us to do almost all of our wine tasting at the table rather than in the more clinical, sip and spit setting of a lined-up trade tasting.
Joining us for lunch at THO were Alex and Monica Villicana (pictured above at center and foreground), husband and wife owners of their eponymous Paso Robles winery, Villicana. The Villicanas produce roughly 1,800 cases a year from their 13.5 acres of vineyards, growing about 95% of the fruit necessary for their overall production themselves.
The 2009 Villicana Paso Robles "Vin Rosé" was produced from a blend of early-picked, whole-cluster pressed Syrah, along with saignées of both Grenache and Mourvèdre, and finished with a dash of Viognier (2-5%) for aromatic lift. Their 2007 Estate Syrah, actually a blend of 80% Syrah with 10% each of Grenache and Mourvèdre, was aged for 20 months in French oak barriques, 40% of which were new. All of the wines at Villicana are fermented with inoculated, selected yeasts but do not show any other overt signs of manipulation. While both wines were a little on the polished (and oaky, in the case of the red) side for my personal tastes, both were well-crafted and, most importantly in our setting, paired well with lunch.
After lunch, Thomas Hill co-owner Debbie Thomas, came out to say hello and to field a few questions from the group.
For dessert, a little something to cleanse the palate and highlight the brilliant flavors that only fresh ingredients can deliver: Strawberry Terrine with Champagne Granita and Sliced Kumquats. I, for one, left refreshed and ready for the rest of the day's adventures.
Thomas Hill Organics
1305 Park Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446