Being seated for dinner on a Friday night at 9 o’clock is a rather rare event in San Luis Obispo County–even in a bustling tourist-strip like Pismo Beach. The sidewalks roll up pretty early fo this demographic, and here-to-fore the speakeasy across the street was your only option for food and wine at these hours. Therefore it is with intense personal interest to announce a new option for us late-diners with the opening of LA BODEGA TAPAS.
A beautiful remodel of this former bank, with several distinct vibes designed into the room–but all interactive while separated psychologically. The large open bar–with modest, un-oppressive television presence–flows seamlessly into the largest space-designation of the room: that of high, very-adaptive, personal or community tables. A grand piano installs elegance and solemnity in the corner, where the dining options morph to classic low seating before opening to street-level patio. The volume level and mood of the room impressed me, as everything from hearty rambunctiousness to serious low-hum was embraced ungarishly and respectfully; normal conversation was effortless; live music un-amplified. This all occurring in a packed dining room opening to minor kitchen operatives. Quite an accomplishment. Did I mention the vault is a walk-in?
Our waiter was perfect and far more professional than is the norm in this town, and I observed other staff following suit. Whenever I get near-perfect service, I especially watch other interactions to be certain an anomaly is not occurring.
Winelist is a reasonably attractive affair–balanced somewhere between curt and lengthy–a page of whites and a page of reds, all local, with a generous helping of the usual suspects injected with smatterings of not-often-seen curiosities. Oddly, over half the red list is dedicated to Pinot Noir, which surprised me considering the theme of the restaurant. Don’t get me wrong–I LOVE Pinot–it just shines a sort of Nepenthe/Ciopinot “What’s going on here?” light on the establishment. Nearly ALL of the 40-odd bottles are poured BTG–an attractive feat to the casual eye–but my glass of a familiar, stalwart, and typically brightly-resilient red was oxidized to just shy of “When was this opened?”
The menu is indeed small plates. A mouth-watering array of great descriptions and adjascent-table observations which make ORDERING EVERYTHING a tempting option. Note: these are not “Small Bites” as often is the *tapas* interpretation–these are actually generous plates, and a couple could easily be sated by one each. We opted for three.
Octopus has become a near-litmus here on the Central Coast in the past half-decade, so much so it is de rigueur ordering. This version does not come anywhere near the top offerings in the area. Chewy chunks tasting as if held over a Bic lighter perched on a curiously wilted bed of spring greens and fennel root doused in something sesame-smoky. Entirely edible but oddly flavored, and brings question marks to the “marinated” in the description. The pomplamoose chunks incorporated were visually refreshing, but offered glaring contrast to both the dish and any wine at the table.
I know I have gone on record many times begging for Pork Belly to be OVER, but spying the preparation at a neighbor’s table piqued my interest–and ESPECIALLY the polenta cakes nestled beneath. The possibilities for preparation of this fatty ‘substance’ are infinite and vary even across the individual animal. This version came heavy on charred fat and light on crispy meat. Large globules of milky silk blackened on at least one side. Flavor was 8/10, reduction a lovely juxtaposition and the polenta were heavenly little cakes, the perfect amount of crisp exterior opening to steamy moist interior goodness with an almost floral decadence. I could picture myself ordering this over and over.
“Gnocchi & Scallops” was just curious enough on paper to order, an odd pairing of two standards–Seared Scallops boringly impossible to screw up but when they are it is great comedy, and Gnocchi so chronically injected with a myriad of textures, sauces and densities it is always a fun dissection–not to mention subjective. Scallops PERFECT. If you’re going to order a yawner like scallops fried in butter, THIS is the way you want them. Interiors hovering somewhere between flaky and al dente, exteriors glistening moist and crispy. The pastas were prepared in a way which falls outside typical sauced observation–being baked into a crispy sort of almost-finger-food-ish tater-tot crispy-crunchy exteriors and dry fluffy interiors, little peanut-sized items you can literally pick up with your fingers and munch. Of course, the generously sauced arugula bed suggests you probably should use the provided fork. The mushrooms were my favorite. A very well executed dish I promise will be popular.
Dessert is a brief list, and the Chocolate Skillet Cake called. Topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream dressed in a Foster-Freeze-ish marbling of chocolate dip, the cake itself was a middle-ground of definition. I couldn’t decide if someone tried to make chocolate cake feel like a brownie–and failed–or if someone tried to make a brownie be a chocolate cake–and failed. Dry and awkward, the bland interior offering little contrast to the sharp, burnt edges.
This strip of Pismo Beach has been SO EXCITING this year, and I have looked on with glee as the historically sole-anchor finally gets challenged on all sides. La Bodega is a smart, comfortable and welcome juxtaposition to the classic dining offerings of this part of town. And there’s more to come. Stay tuned.