What's in a name?

What's in a name?

a/k/a An American Bistro is also known as a place for great food

By Erica Wayne 11/20/2013

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A /k/a, Robert Simon’s Restaurant in the One Colorado complex in Old Pasadena, has a provocative name. “AKA” (also known as…) is usually followed by an alias, a nickname, or a pseudonym. In a/k/a’s case, however, the added words simply provide clarification. a/k/a is, according to its subtitle, “An American Bistro.” 

Which leaves me first (and only briefly since I have no answer) to ponder the unstated. What, in the owner’s mind, comes before a/k/a? Is it, as in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats,” an “effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name” that Simon “knows and will never confess?” Who knows? Certainly not I.

But on to the restaurant’s given name. Despite Gertrude Stein’s assertion, a rose is not always a rose. Contemporary definitions for the term “bistro” are as varied as the restaurants who adopt the title. In France, whatever its origins, bistro used to title relatively small eating establishments serving relatively simple foods at relatively modest prices. But nowadays, there seems to be little distinction between many bistros and far grander restaurants. Be that as it may, a/k/a is (as is Bistro 45, Simon’s other Pasadena restaurant) a fine (as in dandy) fine-dining experience. And if you want to quibble that foccaccia, foie blonde or Scottish salmon don’t belong on an “American bistro” menu, phooey. Take it up with the chef. There are plenty of dishes like mac and cheese ($7), Reubens ($14), barbecue short ribs ($24) and brownies ($8.50) straight from our homeland.

And if you want to complain that Reubens, short ribs and brownies shouldn’t cost so much, let’s talk quality. As the menu states: “a/k/a supports sustainable and organic farming. We make many of our ingredients here and proudly work with the … all natural meat, produce and poultry producers/suppliers.” And, that, ladies and gentlemen, as those of you who have frequented Whole Foods well know, doesn’t come cheap.

Three of us stopped by for lunch the other day and sampled a number of dishes, including a charcuterie platter as a starter. The meats included salume, country pate, foie blonde and Parma prosciutto. Our server couldn’t tell us which animals contributed to the spreads (a guess was pork, veal and chicken), and I really didn’t want to know. Suffice it to say that both were delicious. Even more to my taste were the mixed olives, house-pickled veggies (carrots, cucumber and cauliflower, each in a different subtly herbed brine) and hearty house-made mustard.

We also tried the incredibly popular (look up the Yelp reviews) crispy Portobello fries with truffle aioli ($9). A generous portion of amazingly light, tempura-battered, piping hot fries arrived in a white-paper cone meant to absorb the frying oil. Both my companions adored them while I was somewhat less enthusiastic. Too greasy and, despite the Belgian custom, I am not a fan of mayonnaise for dipping, truffled or not. Bah! Humbug!

However, I was delighted by absolutely everything else we ordered. Our entrées were the aforementioned Reuben, roasted “Mary’s Chicken” salad ($14) and pan-seared Scottish salmon ($24). Our desserts were a blackberry upside down tart and lemon pudding cake (both, like all of a/k/a’s sweets, $8.50).

First, about that Reuben. Its description (oddly spelled “rueben” — perhaps to differentiate it from more common varieties?) reads “our corned beef, panini rye, Gruyere, rueben dressing, ourkraut.” The two “ours” certainly indicate house curing and pickling and, as with the veggies on the charcuterie plate, the qualitative difference is evident. Even though that sandwich started out in front of a tablemate, it ended its almost platonic perfection with me.

I barely got a taste of the salmon, alas. Its tender and succulent medium rare flesh was consumed almost immediately and completely by its rightful owner, who also lapped up the accompanying tangy lemon orzo, spectacular dill pesto and colorful slices of Easter egg radish with unseemly haste, despite the stabs of adjacent forks attempting to impede his progress.
As for my own delectable salad, it was enormous: loads of fragrant roasted chicken (white and dark in irregular pieces, seemingly pulled from the bone by hand) nestled within a lemon vinaigrette-dressed tabbouleh-like mix of bulgur, diced avocado, cucumber, golden raisins and ruby cranberries, with a candy-sweet roasted tomato on top and a few greens thrown in as if by happy afterthought.  

So, what does an a/k/a upside down tart look like? Kind of odd, a round of warm coarse-textured cake about three inches in diameter, topped (or is that bottomed?) with imbedded blackberries, with a drizzle of caramel, real crème chantilly (thick and not too sweet) and a sprinkle of chopped peanuts, sided with a small scoop of ice cream and a strawberry and mint garnish. What does it taste like? Lovely.

And lemon pudding cake (which sounds like something to be found amongst the Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines shelves at Vons), not really. The cake was moist and simple, but both the tart lemony puddle underneath it and the intense raspberry sorbet it was paired with raised it way above the ordinary.

Because of the gorgeous early-autumn weather, we chose to dine al fresco on the expansive (60-seat) patio with its cheery vermillion umbrellas. But we probably would have been just as happy in one of the comfy booths in a/k/a’s richly designed low-lit interior, my preference for post-sunset repasts.

Also, we regretfully ignored the extensive (more than 60) carefully selected wines on the back of the menu, most of which can be ordered by glass or bottle. The list shares the page with 13 artisan beers and four wine flights. Neither the brews nor vintages are limited to domestic production. If you want to argue about that anomaly in “an American bistro,” you’re definitely missing the point. a/k/a is AKA a truly superior dining venue! 

An American Bistro
41 Hugus Alley, 
Old Pasadena
(626) 564-8111
Full bar/Major cards

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