The tip came from a "Rhone Ranger," one of the original pioneers of Rhone-style winemaking in California. A gruff fellow, not one to wax poetic, he called to carry on about a little place he'd just discovered, a cowboy steakhouse with a nostalgic vibe and fine country cooking deep in the hills of the Central Coast.
And so we headed north to Santa Margarita (population 2,333) just off the 101 freeway only eight miles north of San Luis Obispo.
At the center of town, weathered clapboard buildings nudge up against each other, and a broad sidewalk unrolls in front.
And there it is, a little building with "The Range" scrawled across its front, a steer with long horns painted overhead, and half a dozen pickup trucks lined up in front. Patsy Cline's honeyed voice leaks from a small bullhorn speaker just above the door, and stove burners are embedded in the broad concrete doorstep. It's the Range. Get it?
A friendly, no-nonsense waitress with a white apron wrapped around her middle leads us to a table where the winemaker and his wife are already seated. Rain slides down the window, Hank Williams comes on the stereo, and I feel like I've walked into another time and place.
On a weeknight, the place is half full, yet the chef and owner, Jeff Jackson, isn't cutting back. The waitress recites the four specials that night with real appreciation in her voice. She knows they're good. But I've already spotted crawfish cakes on the menu. Steak with red-eye gravy? For sure. A homey tomato bisque, wild arugula salad and seafood risotto. Sounds good. It all sounds good.
Off the beaten path
Why haven't I heard about this place before? Though the Range is about 2 years old, the winemaker sheepishly confesses he just discovered it a couple of weeks ago. It's off the beaten path and about as far from the "Sideways" hype and hustle as you can get, wonderfully low-key and unglitzy for a wine-country restaurant.
It's not trying to be French. Or Tuscan or Mediterranean. Jackson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Lindsay, is working in the California vernacular, which includes all sorts of influences without any one winning out. The crowd is mostly local, people who know the chef from the years he cooked with Laurent Grangien of Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles.
His pizzette make a good appetizer to share. Oval in shape, it has a crisp, flavorful crust and comes in two varieties, one with caramelized onions on top, the other with roasted whole cloves of garlic, roasted peppers and feta cheese. That one's not called "stinking rose pizzette" for nothing.
The crawfish cake -- make that cakes, two of them, plump and full of that crawdad flavor -- are served with vinegary crisp, pickled okra and a punchy, orange Tabasco sauce. Steamed mussels are delicious too, plump and sweet. The juices are maybe a little salty but delicious.
That special beet salad features baby red and gold beets with tender, peppery arugula leaves and nuggets of blue cheese with sugared walnuts and thinly sliced red onions strewn on top. It's a particularly good version of the popular greens plus blue cheese and walnuts salad. Chilled butter lettuce salad is excellent too, tossed in a refreshing buttermilk dressing and garnished with red onion rings and crispy bacon.
The Range is definitely more of a local hang than a tourist destination, yet that bowl of tomato soup could lure me into a detour anytime. It's pure nostalgia, old-fashioned and creamy with the comforting taste of real tomato. It's just what I want on a rainy night in Santa Margarita, though I wouldn't say no to the onion soup either, which comes in a thick-walled pottery bowl. Made with good broth and good cheese, it's another classic that's almost never done well.
Johnny Cash rumbles over the speakers as we troll the one-page wine list for a red -- local, of course -- finally settling on "Vertigo," a Syrah-Grenache blend from Booker Vineyard. Cool and focused, it's perfect with my rib-eye steak with red-eye gravy, the red-eye referring to the coffee that's stirred into the pan juices. Coffee with the beef's char is a great match, giving the sauce some lift.
Jackson loads on the black peppercorn too, so it's almost like a steak au poivre. Order your steak a tad rarer than you'd normally want it, and it should come out of the kitchen just about right.
Beef filet from Hearst Ranch arrives tall and proud, smeared with blue cheese and sitting in a lake of red wine sauce. The beef is wonderful, and I found myself wanting to remove the blue cheese and just enjoy it plain.
There's a good pork porterhouse that's cooked pink and juicy, but trumped by the really flavorful lamb chops. These come with potato gratin, but most every other main course gets a dollop of excellent mashed potatoes, along with a few cauliflower florets and sliced carrots.
And if you want a roast chicken, he's got that too, and it's a bird that tastes like a real chicken with firm, flavorful flesh. Nothing revelatory, just plain good, especially with a big heap of those fine mashed potatoes.
Modest wine picks
The wine list doesn't make a big statement: It's pretty modest, which fits the place. It has some good local labels and food-friendly wines, all that the Range really needs. But wine buffs may be disappointed to find few heavy-hitters or cult wines on the list.
Dessert could be a luscious lavender honey creme brulee or a chocolate pot de creme served in a coffee cup. The walnut fig Gorgonzola tart doesn't win me over: It tastes like a Fig Newton with cheese. But if you're lucky, the chef will have whipped up a Meyer lemon pound cake that day -- and that is what you should have. Cut in a thick slice, it's served with vanilla ice cream, fresh berries (blue and black) and a berry coulis. Real cake. Not too sweet. Now how often do you find that?
Only in Santa Margarita, at a nouveau cowboy steakhouse with old-time country music on the stereo and a free and unfettered spirit in the kitchen. Plan this one right into your Google map.
Location: 22317 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita (eight miles north of San Luis Obispo); (805) 438-4500.
Ambience: Laid-back Central Coast wine country restaurant with a cowboy theme that includes stove burners buried in the concrete out front and country music playing on the stereo. The food is California country from owner-chef Jeff Jackson.
Service: Friendly and no-nonsense.
Price: Appetizers, $6 to $9; main courses, $17 to $31; desserts, $6 to $7.
Best dishes: Crawfish cakes with Tabasco butter, steamed mussels, chilled butter lettuce salad, tomato bisque, rib-eye steak with red-eye gravy, lamb chops with potato gratin, half roast chicken, lavender honey creme brulee, chocolate pot de creme, Meyer lemon pound cake.
Wine list: Modest one-page list with mostly local wines. Corkage fee, $15.
Best table: The round table in the corner.
Details: Open for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Wine and beer. Street parking.
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Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun