You’ve been there before. You’re traveling out of town, maybe it’s to visit your best buddy from college or that classmate from elementary school who is getting married in a place completely foreign to you – and your friends. I was recently in a similar pickle, blindly searching for a memorable meal in the small downtown area of Paso Robles – and I struck gold at Thomas Hill Organics.
Set off the main street in a non-descript building, you wouldn’t expect to be served the kind of innovative cuisine that comes out of this market-driven bistro and wine bar. Dedicated to serving only the finest organic produce from it’s own farm and highlighting the unique wines from the Central Coast region (many of which are inspired by classic Rhone varietals), the menu changes weekly depending on what is in season and readily available. It’s the best of what the area has to offer – in a relaxed yet refined setting that will surely leave many lasting memories.
Dining with a group of six, our party was not just any size party. Although we were a bit late to our reservation thanks to a delay back at the hotel, we were quickly seated upon arrival. Menus and water quickly followed – just as conversation picked back up seated around a table in the restaurant’s front room (sadly the back enclosed patio space was taken up by a rehearsal dinner – certainly that says something about the caliber of the cuisine and charm of the space). But order quickly we did not. First it was the shared plates, like the cheese plate with renowned Californian cheeses paired with toasted nuts and truffled honey, or the roasted cauliflower puree with dukkah and grilled pitas.
The restaurant focuses on produce grown in the region, so I was anticipating a classic, new American-ish style food. I was delightfully surprised though to discover some dishes on the menu boasted a unique, shall I say Mexican-inspired touch? Take the coconut and lime soup with baby bok choy and cilantro, for example. I immediately think of a cold soup served beach side in the Caribbean. Then there is the grilled duck satay, served with a creamy peanut sauce – so much better than that boring classic chicken satay – or the braised pork belly tacos, with carrot sambal and creamy avocado (is this Thomas Hill’s interpretation of the David Chang classic? I don’t know, but it gives Chang’s steamed buns a run for their money in my book).
We tried the salads, with tender greens still crisp-tender, picked fresh from the fields that day. Some of us skipped out, choosing to share a bite of our friends’ appetizers – and of course saving room for the star of the show – entrees. Smitten with cilantro and coconut (yes, I was still in the tropics, mentally), I chose the thin crust pizza smeared with carrot purée, shaved jalapenos (which were nearly undetectable), braised Beluga lentils, coconut cream and cilantro. I was torn between that and the one with caramelized onions, smoked grapes, apples, blue cheese, and a red wine drizzle. Maybe for dessert? While I don’t remember what my friends had – all I know is they were delighted with it, devouring every last bite – I do know that conversation went from a very animated chatter nearly to a dead silence as everyone carefully dove into and savored every bite, taking in the harmonious combination of flavors and textures. We had found heaven in Paso Robles, indeed.
Too stuffed from endless appetizers and the restaurant’s hearty portions (which even though some of us arrived with less-than hungry appetites, we each managed to clear our plates. It was that good). Many of us skipped dessert, which some of us regret, but that gives me at least a reason to go back.
Whether you’re visiting Paso Robles on a Central Coast wine tour, or even if you’re just headed up the California interstate from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Thomas Hill Organics is a hidden gem that is certainly worth the stop and trek off the highway. There is something for everyone, no matter your taste preference, appetite, or budget. It really is the best of the Central Coast, served up in a no-frills atmosphere with delightful service in this authentic, historic town.