Cioppino and pinot noir is a winning culinary combo being celebrated in style at Leonard and Wendy Cohen’s new Ciopinot Seafood Grille in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Located at the longtime site of Tortilla Flats restaurant, the Cohens worked with the building’s owner to transform the interior, relying on Wendy’s keen sense of design. The result is a warm, welcoming atmosphere with a big-city feel.
Leonard Cohen readily admitted that “anything having to do with décor was Wendy, and it feels good, it feels open. My job was to place everything from an efficiency standpoint, something we had the ability to do because we essentially gutted everything.”
Cohen certainly knows how a restaurant works. His father opened the popular Olde Port Inn at the Port San Luis pier in 1971, and insisted that if his son was going to work there, he had to learn every aspect.
Cohen recalls starting with cleaning bathrooms and working his way up to the front of the house to general manager, only to be put to work washing dishes and having to learn every job in the kitchen before reassuming the general manager position.
The Cohens have no plans to shutter Olde Port, but they wanted to do something new with a different spin. What emerged was Ciopinot, which showcases not only the Italian fish stew and wine varietals for which it’s named, but also fresh seafood and a raw bar.
“There was a wide-open seafood niche here in San Luis Obispo, and no one else here has a raw bar,” said Cohen, adding that the restaurant features at least four different types of oysters each evening. “We also have our own crabber who brings us fresh local rock crabs every couple of days.”
To spearhead Ciopinot’s kitchen, Cohen tapped former Olde Port chef David Whitestine as executive chef, who was most recently the chef and general manager of a Las Vegas casino.
Whitestine frequents the Thursday night farmers market and focuses on “the freshest possible seafood we can get — that gives us our outlook on the specials for the week.”
Lately, featured dishes have included a market fresh beet salad and local swordfish stuffed with spinach and feta cheese.
In addition to the nightly specials, there are menu mainstays such as grilled mahi mahi with coconut scallion crust and red curry sauce, Alaskan halibut with lavender flour and a beurre blanc sauce, and — of course — a few cioppino options. Choose from “No Work” cioppino with all the shellfish cracking done for you, or add crab claws, or even get a serving of the spicy broth with no fish.
Starters include a classic Caesar salad with anchovies, crab cakes that don’t skimp on crab, and hearty clam chowder. Desserts range from silky crème brulee to blueberry cobbler to refreshing pistachio sorbet.
Though Ciopinot has a full bar with creations featuring housemade simple syrup and cucumber-infused spirits, it’s wine that shines here.
The Cohens have been longtime supporters of the local wine industry and pinot noir in general, and the wine list reflects that. Red and white pinots from all regions are celebrated, but there are many other options, as well as about two dozen wines by the glass and half bottles.
Another vital component to Ciopinot is the customer, a key reason “we don’t have a corkage fee, split plate charge or automatic gratuity on groups,” said Cohen.
“The customer is everything. If they tell me what they want, and I have the ability to deliver it, I will. We don’t want people to leave disappointed.”