Dining Out: Paso Robles Inn is more than steak and potatoes

Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse, a landmark on Spring Street since the 1940s, has been a haven for meat lovers. Locally raised chef Kelly Wangard is breathing new life into the menu offering locals and visitors traditional favorites and a few surprises

July 16, 2008 

If you’re a steak lover in North County, you’ve likely been a fan of the Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse for a very long time.

It has been serving up prized Harris Ranch filets, rib eyes and prime rib with traditional sides like potatoes and wedge salad for years, and is as much a fixture in downtown Paso Robles as the hotel it’s housed in.

But if you’re not a steak-and- potatoes type, you probably haven’t been there in a while. Well, now is the time to go back.

Kelly Wangard started as executive chef at the steakhouse six months ago. Although the restaurant interior is still a bit dark and in desperate need of a makeover, she has brought new life to the place with her culinary talent and passion for food. More about the food later.

Raised in Paso Robles since age 8, Wangard was first exposed to cooking as a teenage server and cook at the local Cahoots Catering Co. & Cafe. Owners Lisa Jones and Jim Subject shared their passion and enthusiasm for cooking with young Wangard and inspired her to continue on to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

From there, Wangard went on to cook in kitchens from Northern California, to St. Johns in the Virgin Islands, to an exclusive resort in Wisconsin. By age 30 she was executive chef at the Loews in Beverly Hills.

Two years ago Wangard and her husband, Gregg, had a daughter, and she thought her professional cooking days were over. “I didn’t think I’d ever be a chef again,” Wangard says. Raising a young daughter simply didn’t balance with the grueling hours of a professional kitchen.

Then, partly by accident, Wangard found herself back in Paso Robles. Her husband had taken a job as executive chef at the Marisol restaurant at the Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, and once the management of the Paso Robles Inn heard she was in town, they worked out a flexible schedule that let her combine family life with her passion for cooking.

Changes to the menu

Chef Wangard’s first move was to overhaul the steak-house’s dinner menu. Mindful of the regulars who come for their favorites, Wangard retained many menu items —yet was able to update them with a twist here and there. “I was really careful making the menu changes because I didn’t want to shock our regular guests,” she explains.

One example is the Fried Brie Cheese ($8). The old menu included a baked brie that was accompanied by toast and fruit; Wangard’s version is lightly battered and deep fried, so the outside is crispy and the inside is soft and creamy. Surrounded by sweet raisins soaked in port and an apple cider syrup, it is topped with finely chopped apple and radish for a fresh crunchy finish. The contrast of tastes and textures is wonderful.

Fresh, local ingredients

The goal with all of her dishes is to feature fresh, local ingredients while offering something new for locals and travelers. “We’re known for the steaks, but we want to offer much more than that,” she said.

She has added a number of new items to the menu such as a Grilled Castroville Artichoke ($9). Boiled until tender, the artichoke is brushed with olive oil and salt and pepper before it is grilled for a unique charred flavor. Meyer lemon sauce and a chipotle ranch dressing are offered on the side.

Another new item is Stuffed Quail ($23). She carefully bones the bird so it’s easy for diners to eat, and stuffs it with a mixture of smoky bacon, mushrooms and spinach.

The meat is tender, moist and a perfect pairing to the aromatic stuffing.

Other signature items include Maple Leaf Farms Roasted Duck Breast and Confit ($25) and Pan Roasted Morro Bay Halibut ($23).

Wangard uses local ingredients including Santa Maria greens, purple potatoes and zucchini blossoms in menu items and in the nightly specials, noting “I go to the farmers market in Templeton every Saturday, so our specials are really fun on Saturday night.”

Meat and potatoes

For those who still want steak and potatoes, Wangard has kept the popular filet mignon, rib eye and flat iron steaks, as well as prime rib au jus, but she has updated the sides and the sauces that go with them. “I did change every single item one way or another,” she says, “sometimes I just took twists on things.”

Her next challenge is the breakfast menu, which she is currently working on, followed by the lunch menu and bar offerings.

“We’re trying to tie in the same concept, the same style,” she explains. “Using local products, having something for the wine traveler, being a steakhouse with more options than just steak.”

Reach freelance writer Janis Switzer at janisswitzer @ yahoo.com.

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