When I asked my brother-in-law, who works at Taft College, to help me with a query from a reader seeking advice on where to eat in the west Kern oil town, he rattled off a couple of expected selections: Asian Experience, a well-regarded Thai restaurant on Center Street, and Original Hacienda Grill for Mexican.
But he reserved his highest praise for a new place that is making a splash with residents: Fiorina's. He finds the place authentic and charming and recommends the meatball sliders ($9) for lunch.
I have another relative in Taft who accompanied us to a dinner visit at Fiorina's. Let's call her Mrs. Taft since she was able to give us a lot of information on the town, where she's lived for years. She said Fiorina's, which is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, is just packed at lunch with a lot of Bakersfield folks who work in the oilfields. Dinner is only Friday through Sunday, and she thinks the restaurant is making a big mistake by not being open for lunch on Sundays to pull in the after-church crowd.
"That's a missed opportunity," she said, though the place had only been open for a month at the time we visited, so changes could be coming.
If you drive over from Bakersfield, Taft prices will take some getting used to -- meaning that everything seems dirt cheap. Beers are $3, decent varietal wines, even a Fess Parker, are $4 a glass. That doesn't seem right. Every dinner is under $16.
They also feature a special menu called "Noni's Little Bits," a kids menu for all ages, billed as "smaller portions for smaller eaters." The restaurant was astute to jump on the growing trend toward smaller plates, perfect for dieters or others who want to go out but aren't that hungry.
But price is one thing, quality is another. So how was my brother-in-law's endorsement? Spot-on.
I ordered the grilled hangar steak ($16) while my companion chose one of the pastas, the baked penne ($10), with my third companion ordering a bowl of minestrone soup ($4).
The soup was solid, made with potatoes, "seasonal vegetables" and cannellini beans in a dark brown stock that had just the subtlest of caramel notes. With a long slice of garlic toast made from decent Italian bread, it was a perfect choice for cool weather.
My steak was a tube-shaped cut, like a hot dog, presented with a marvelous oniony red wine reduction. They had brought some fresh mushrooms marinated in red wine to our table earlier as something of an appetizer, and I sliced them up and used them on the steak. Great addition. It was served with gnocchi presented with garlic butter and steamed vegetables (broccoli, carrots, squash, zucchini) that had formed too strong a friendship with the hot water. (When I barely ate them, the waitress inquired because she said a lot of them were coming back uneaten. I explained my objection, and expect that like most new restaurants trying to please, they'll be tinkering with that. My companion noted that they had no garlic, butter, cheese or sauce with them, and even if not overcooked would've been much blander than everything else on my plate.)
My companion's pasta was one of those rich cheesy creations that can cause a dairy hangover if you're not careful. The pasta was served with grilled chicken breast, prosciutto, shrimp and roasted red peppers, a cheese blend and a light cream sauce -- a fantastic combination of ingredients. What I especially appreciated was the restrained use of the prosciutto, which had the potential to overwhelm everything else. The proportions are just right, though again I warn you the cheese and cream sauce left me with the impression that I sure didn't want to know the calorie count of this.
Dinners included a salad that was a good mix of greens with purple onion strings and an assertive house balsamic that was served on the side.
Fiorina's is located in a small strip shopping center, but it has a cute interior with miniature tiffany lamps hanging over the tables. Mrs. Taft explained that for years it was an American food diner, then was home to a Mexican restaurant that struggled to compete with the more established star mentioned by my brother-in-law above. It's a comfortable place, not a white table-cloth establishment, perfect for a casual, moderately-priced night out.
And they do make their own desserts, cheesecakes and tiramisu. We asked for a recommendation but our waitress liked them all. We split a tiramisu ($3), and it was thick with cream on top of a thin layer of ladyfingers doused with espresso. I appreciated that the ladyfingers were not soggy and the dusting of chocolate on top of the cream was perfect.
It's been awhile since I raved about a restaurant in Taft (I used to love Ollie's on 33, a fantastic '50s diner with shakes and sandwiches that were just charming). But Fiorina's is definitely a restaurant worth a special journey, as the Michelin folks say.