Here in northern California I like to travel to places that are, more or less, a secret. Carmel, for instance, is not a secret. The beach is still beautiful but the town is stuffed with overcute McMansionettes, the cinemas are gone, the bookstores are gone, the mom-and-pop stores are gone, the visitors are, how shall I put it, WASP and then some.
But Templeton, that funky village just south of Paso Robles in the Central Coast wine and BBQ country, well, this place is just well enough NOT known to suit me fine.
As you may recall from the little piece in Chapter 9 of this volume titled Dinner at Alex’s, Templeton is home to the delightful Country House Inn, free of television, free of wi-fi, free of guests sometimes, run by the same charming proprietess for a quarter of a century. There in a 1886 Victorian one sleeps peacefully to the rumble of a distant SP freight and wakes to a breakfast of unctuous poached pears in cream, velvety blueberry muffins and individual cheese souffles overflowing their ramekins. And the plumbing still sighs like a contented lover.
One dines just up the main drag, across from the town’s tilting grain elevator (Leaning Tower of Templeton, this poor man’s Albi Cathedral?), but not at the Alex’s of yore — Alex’s you can find some miles south at Shell Beach. Now the lure is McPhee’s where a ranchland version of Berkeley Nouvelle-slash-Nuevo Latino is your happy portion. With all due respect to Alex’s and his estimable calamari steaks, McPhee’s is a more upmarket gastronomical kettle of fish, the food exceptionaly refined while lusty enough and bursting with flavor. The proprietor, a self-taught fellow from Pico Rivera in Los Angeles, is obsessed by the notion of fresh ingredients and this state of affairs is no secret on the tables of his establishment.
Said tables welcome us with flowery who-would-know-they’re-plastic coverings and oldtime milk bottles await with water for thirsty diners who will, of course, be attacking the excellent wine list any moment now. And here are olives, olive bread and pickled onion to nibble on, also flatbread supreme.
We focused on starters. The idea of an Oak Grilled Rib Eye with three salsas, jalapeno mashed potatoes and three- cheese stuffed grilled poblano — this among the “mains” — seemed rather daunting. So I sampled the house’s oak via a California artichoke steamed, bisected and grilled over exceptionally aromatic coals and served with a first class chipotle chile mayonnaise. Son John rated high an ancho duck and cheese quesadilla, the tortilla element biscuity as can be, and I had my poblano minus a steak: a zesty dish it was, the chile resting in a puddle of chunklet-dotted tomatillo salsa invaded by a friendly ooze of chevre.
Dessert seemed a bit risky in the wake of all these plates plus a side of the jalapeno potatoes smoooth as a Mozart legato but we figured we might sneak through with what turned out, no surprise, to be a triumph of eatability, lemon sorbet with raspberry sauce and a large menhir of chocolate planted in the sorbet like a badge of McPheeian office. Then out into the chilly night, the enormous grain elevator still a little tipsy.