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Sail Morro Bay from high ground 

Bella Vino's wine bar and bistro redux offers so much more than panoramic views

click to enlarge FRESH AND LOCAL :  The Bella Vino signature cheese plate is made up of all locally made cheese and fresh produce. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FRESH AND LOCAL : The Bella Vino signature cheese plate is made up of all locally made cheese and fresh produce.
Looking for a respite that’s so far apart from the standard restaurant (particularly those people considering dining in a chain eatery), you’re sure to walk away talking about it? On the occasions I’m asked that question (daily, thanks to the Internet, yet I don’t mind), I advise diners to find a place that’s locally owned. Of course it must be operated by chefs and managers who are passionate about featuring farm fresh local foods and our artisan quality Central Coast wines. Admittedly, even when you’re familiar with the area, it’s not so easy to find the hidden treasures within a tourist destination that’s as popular as SLO County.

That’s why it helps to have someone with experience to guide you—and that’s why I love writing this column to share news about the hidden gems I’ve discovered. Although I visit most eateries, wine bars, and wineries several times before reviewing them, during my first visit I can usually predict whether or not that place will continue to maintain its standards. On the other hand, I still return to those restaurants that disappoint on the first visit, buoyed by the hope they’ve grown past their opening jitters.

The most recent discovery was a new Morro Bay wine bar and bistro, Bella Vino’s, which provided exactly the scenario I always hope to find. This wine bar offers a well-chosen wine list with an amazing selection of excellent Central Coast wineries. But it takes the experience a step beyond the norm by offering freshly prepared foods usually found only in upscale restaurants, and a relaxing, cordial ambiance. The wine bar, perched on the hilltop’s edge, sits high above Morro Bay’s Embarcadero. Bella Vino’s promotional cards cleverly describe the place as featuring a nightly rock show (Morro Rock), and indeed it does have spectacular views of the busy harbor front.

During my first visit to Bella Vino’s, I happily reconnected with an old friend—Aaron Warren—who previously owned and operated Café Luna in SLO (a tiny café with an amazing following). He surprised me by personally inviting me to come check out Bella Vino’s, when only two months earlier he was hired by owner Kathy Cohen to redirect the theme of the wine bar. Now, it has much more in common with a quaint French bistro than it does the usual wine bar. Under the expert guidance of Warren as general manager, who earned his chops after 26 years in the biz, the menu grew from cheese plates and appetizers to gourmet meals, albeit a limited menu.

Cohen opened Bella Vino’s 19 months ago. “I opened on “11/11/11,” she quipped and admitted she created the concept with partners, but they backed out before their vision was completed. Cohen, however, was fully committed and carried on alone. It simply wasn’t an easy start for someone new to the business.

“It’s been great having Aaron here. He grew up here and knows everyone who walks in the door,” Cohen noted. “Aaron’s got a keen nose and palate for pairing wine and food. And he loves food as much as he loves wine.”

Two years ago, Warren left the area to live the good life in Monterey, but he’s back and living in Morro Bay. That was a very good thing for Cohen, who admitted she needed someone with more wine experience managing her wine and cheese bar. Warren, sought out by a headhunter while in Monterey, was invited to visit Bella Vino’s in the hopes that he might find it an interesting wine bar to manage while improving upon the concept.

Warren recalled: “I came back to see Bella Vino’s and to meet Kathy. She hired me that day.”

click to enlarge COMFORT AND A VIEW :  One long side of the Bella Vino bar and dining area has an expansive view of the Morro Bay Embarcadero and ocean. Owner Kathy Cohen and GM/Sommelier Aaron Warren will cater to your every need. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • COMFORT AND A VIEW : One long side of the Bella Vino bar and dining area has an expansive view of the Morro Bay Embarcadero and ocean. Owner Kathy Cohen and GM/Sommelier Aaron Warren will cater to your every need.
Born and raised in Morro Bay, Warren worked for many prominent restaurateurs, including Paul van Beurden at the Flying Dutchman Restaurant on the Embarcadero. Just a teen when he started busing tables, the 14-year-old was active in Morro Bay’s restaurant and sports culture, and he earned a solid reputation among locals.

Not only was he the chef and creative inspiration behind the amazing menus at Café Luna, he’s been a sommelier and a wine distributor—perfect attributes for someone who’s going to manage a sophisticated wine bar and bistro.

I was impressed by every delightful food and wine pairing I tried: the bruschetta caprese of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on toasted baguettes ($11) paired with Martian Uforic Albarino; (Warren’s) Grandpa’s gourmet mac and cheese made with four cheeses ($13) with house salad and toasted baguettes paired with Qupe Marsanne; the West Coast smoked salmon (wild salmon, line-caught by Mark Tognazzini) with whipped cream cheese, crème fraîche, red onion, capers, housemade balsamic, and greens dressed with Warren’s delicious yet unusual vinaigrette of fresh berries, vinegars, and Dijon mustard, with a balsamic reduction ($13), paired with Deep Sea’s Sea Flower rosé. Our decadent but grand meal concluded with a slice of locally made cheesecake (perfect in its rich and balanced creaminess, but I didn’t like the crust) with strawberries, raspberries, and balsamic reduction ($8), paired with a Antoine Moueix Saternes (prices listed don’t include prices of the recommended wines). There’s also a huge wine list to choose from.

“I’m so happy my reputation is still solid in the community. I’m changing the menu every day and keeping it as organic as possible; the menu with sommelier’s pairings will constantly be evolving,” Warren said earnestly. “It’s imperative to me that people know that, and we’re swiftly building our local reputation for offering amazing food.” 

Contact Cuisine Columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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