San Luis Obispo is a small but vibrant city almost 200 miles north of Los Angeles. At the centre of ranch country, its reputation is linked to the surrounding area where numerous small-holdings, family farms, homesteads and dairies work to produce an impressive range of specialist foods. Often achieving very high standards, they are frequently responsible for the quality items found in the restaurants and farmer’s markets of Los Angeles. Approximately 10 miles further north is the unassuming hamlet of Santa Margarita (population 1260), a place with seemingly little to offer anyone who doesn’t live there. Clumsily marketed as ‘the gateway to the Carrizo Plain Natural Area’, it is – almost by definition – a place that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. And if you didn’t know where to look, you’d certainly miss The Range. Sandwiched between the independent gas station and the local volunteer fire service (which is currently looking for recruits), it seems an unlikely location for a restaurant with a quietly excellent reputation.
Arriving just after 7.00pm it’s already packed – full to capacity – so that we have to wait 10 minutes for a table in the small outside area (reservations aren’t taken here, and it’s also worth noting that they don’t accept any form of plastic payment – cash or check only). Contained by corrugated iron it’s an unexpectedly attractive space, decorated with candles, strings of lights and wrought-iron sculpture. The patio heaters make it warm, and the setting is unpredictably cosy. Intimate and enchanting. We start with a glass of sparkling wine (Pol Clement, $6) and peruse the menu. It’s an interesting selection, and while definitely more suited to carnivores, the choice of main courses does include a vegetarian option as well as one fish dish.
To start I had “Dragon’s Breath”, a Rinconada Farm herbed goat cheese bruleé over spicy roasted red pepper and garlic jam drizzled with tuscan olive oil ($12). It’s a good job that I love garlic. And that I’m not on a first date. I think there is more garlic in this one dish than I’ve ever eaten before. It’s strong, pungent, delicious. It’s even more special as we’re staying locally at the Rinconada dairy, and we’ve already met the goats. The leek and potato bisque is also good, a satisfying soup that is enhanced by lemon and thyme. Provided with a selection of bread we are spoiled for choice – a simple focaccia, coffee-crusted whole wheat, and possibly the best corn bread I’ve ever had. Around us the atmosphere is animated. It’s a country and western themed restaurant, and the walls are covered with record sleeves from artists that I’m vaguely aware of. There’s a soundtrack to match, and I’m thrilled that the table next to us is occupied by a group of men who wear their Stetsons throughout. Tempted by the forest mushroom ravioli with garlic confit and champagne herb cream, I finally decide on the Homestead Farms Hampshire pork rib chop with garlic mash, cider braised red cabbage and brown sugar gastriche ($26).
Paired with a Penman Spring 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($9), this is a delightful combination. It doesn’t pretend to be a delicate dish. The portion is large and wholesome. The dish is warming, comforting and generous. We’ve also ordered Hearst Ranch grass fed flat iron streak, served with roasted fingerling potatoes and syrah onion marmalade ($27). The steak is cooked perfectly, and presented with mixed vegetables that are firm and crisp.
Dessert is the finale. Despite being rather full I’m inspired by my experiments earlier this week, and can’t resist the guava sorbet served with pomegranate seeds and cat’s tongue biscuit ($6). It’s simply excellent, and certainly does justice to these tropical fruits. It’s been a great evening, a thoroughly enjoyable meal, and a wonderful introduction to this food-focused area which I can’t wait to explore.