My best dining experience during a recent trip to Paso Robles -- the frisky, rising wine region midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- was at a new French bistro, Les Petites Canailles.
It has a great back story. Chef Julien Asseo is the son of local winemaking legend Stephan Asseo, founder of L’Aventure winery, one of Paso's early stars and still a leading force in the regional wine industry. Yet the wayward son didn't join the family business, instead following his muse to France to become a chef. He trained around Bordeaux and Paris at Michelin-starred places, and eventually wound his way back to the U.S., holding key positions in a few top-chef French restaurants in Las Vegas. Now he's returned home and opened his own bistro.
It's the best place to eat in Paso.
Some might think that's damning with faint praise. It's not.
The offerings are spectacular, and spectacularly French: Openers include escargot, sweetbreads, caviar service, steak tartare, and planked leeks. We had the octopus -- always a good test of a kitchen's chops -- and it passed with fluttering French colors, nailing a perfect sear and tender chew, and served with flags of pomegranate brittle, fava beans, mint, and little chunks of chorizo. Not French precisely, but brilliant.
The Spring Pea Variations was essentially peas 3 ways, with a salad of garden-fresh peas with lemon vinaigrette that burst in the mouth, a pea puree puddling under burrata as runny and tender as a poached egg, and pea tendrils as a crunchy antenna of garnish.
Les Petites Canailles offers a nightly 5-course tasting menu and a whole range of variations on steak frites. Julien's wife's family is a tenured North Carolina meat producer, so I'm guessing the steaks are right. The daily "large format cuts" were beyond my grasp the night we visited, but I'll be back.
The Anthony Bourdain quote on the wall -- "You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together" -- is just a bonus.
Service was expert and enthusiastic, and by the latter term I mean decidedly not in the French style. Our waiter's energy was clearly all Paso.
It's an expensive place, with small plates $18 to $24, mains $30 to $46. For most visitors, LPC may well be the "special last night in Paso" dinner. Reserve early. I was able to nail only a 7:45 p.m. bar seat for two when I reserved two weeks in advance -- on a slow-season Thursday.
There were no wines from L'Aventure on the list. I suppose that's the son, admirably wanting to make his bones separate from the family business. But: Only two Paso wines on the list, and they were out of one of them.
Our Chenin Blanc and Pouilly-Fume were both lovely.