A 'New' day
Smith Brothers add to their success with Seco New American
By Erica Wayne 03/25/2014
Once again, Bob and Gregg Smith have opened a new restaurant in Pasadena — or have they? Unlike Parkway Grill, Arroyo Chop House, Smitty’s Grill or Cheval Blanc (their four other local venues) Seco New American has not arrived sui generis. Seco is, instead, a revamp of a revamp of the Smith Brothers’ serially successful casual dining spots at the front of The Commons in the 100 block of South Lake Avenue.
Seco New American started life back in the 1980s as the Crocodile Café. Yes, I still remember their primo cheeseburger with “Suzy-Q” curly fries, at that time definitely the best burger in a 20-mile radius. And, yes, I still have one of the sweatshirts featuring their super-cool mascot: A shades-wearing, baseball cap-sporting reptile lounging belly up, front legs behind his head and a contented smile.
After a great run, the Croc was retired almost a decade ago and its home reopened as 140 South — its actual address. It kept the same décor but tinkered with and expanded the menu. And, if I remember correctly, that’s when they upgraded from beer and wine to full liquor license. The burger and fries were still stellar, but they were only a smallish part of a delightfully inventive and wide-ranging list of edibles: pizza, pasta, potstickers, tacos, ahi and salads.
Then, pretty seamlessly toward the end of last year, 140 South closed and a drop-dead renovation was completed in record time, with Seco New American opening its doors just before New Year’s. This time, the transformation has been dramatic. Gone are the blond tables and chairs, completely open kitchen, white tile floors and white ceiling. What was a light and bright interior has been muted.
Seco is done up with dark wood flooring and furnishings, dark ceiling, dim lighting and booths and banquettes dividing the central space into cozy dining niches. Greenish-gray granite covers the counter fronting the kitchen, now partly enclosed. The rear half of the restaurant is taken up by a long granite-clad bar and lounge area.
I can’t say I’m a great fan of these changes. The restaurant is too complicated and too dim for my simple, heliotropic soul. But the most important aspect of 140 South and the Croc before her, its menu still contains many of the same or similar items, including a number that have migrated over from other Smith Brothers’ establishments, obviously because of their excellence and popularity.
As for my beloved burger, it’s still there. When we first tried the restaurant earlier this year, the only available burger was a Kobe (imported directly from Cheval Blanc) with gruyere, caramelized shallots, tomato confit and truffle aioli served with fries, still thin-cut but no longer curled, for a whopping $18. But recently, a more basic wood-grilled cheeseburger, served with “the works” ($14) has been added to the lunch menu.
The lunch list is, by the way, almost identical to the dinner menu except for the absence of said cheeseburger and the presence of grilled octopus with Peruvian beans and bacon, red onions and salsa verde ($15), and wood oven roasted chicken with Middle Eastern spices and creamy mashed potatoes ($22). There are also grilled bacon-wrapped filet with sautéed white mushrooms, gorgonzola and stewed Peruvian beans ($34), and chili-glazed pork-belly with cipollini onions, crushed new potatoes and roasted cherry tomatoes ($18).
Prices are reasonable, with way more in single digits or in the teens than in the $20s or $30s. The menu’s subdivided into “Bites,” “Small,” “Medium,” “Large,” Sides” and “Desserts.” We’ve only tried one of the “Bites”: spiced chicken wings with garlic and coriander yogurt ($7). The four pieces also came with a tangy chimichurri sauce — nice changes from the more typical ranch dressing dip.
One of the two “Smalls” we’ve sampled is the roasted tomato and rye bread soup with olive oil (cup $6/bowl $8), a fabulous variant on Italian pappa al pomidoro. Its subtle caraway flavor really blew us away! The other is herbed burrata with a garnish of “raisined” cherry tomatoes, olive oil and four grilled baguette slices ($11). This “Small” dish was plenty big for two to share.
Among the “Mediums,” the pizza bianco, with braised leeks, burrata, white cheddar, mozzarella, garlic and basil ($15), was tasty, but not outstanding. And the ratio of salmon and dressing to greens in Seco’s hot cedar smoked salmon salad with shaved radish, baby greens and whole grain mustard vinaigrette ($14) was a disappointment.
We haven’t tried the street tacos (a “Small” with carne asada, chicken or fish and red guajilla sauce - $8) or the “Small” wood-grilled artichoke with remoulade (half $7/whole $11), but we have been greatly satisfied with similar dishes at 140 South. And Seco’s seared cornmeal-crusted trout ($22) is also one of our Smitty’s favorites.
Desserts are as good as ever. Seco’s meyer lemon custard, with shortbread cookie, pistachio ice cream, fresh raspberries and raspberry puree ($9) can also be had at Parkway Grill, while the delectable butterscotch pudding ($8) is available at Arroyo Chop House. It and the house-made carrot cake ($8) are also old pals from 140 South.
Aside from great craft beers, the beverage list features carefully selected wines, interesting “signature” cocktails, single malts, bourbons, whiskeys, cognacs and ports ranging from $5 for a bottled brew to $34 for a glass of Hennessy XO to $126 for a bottle of Dancing Hares “Mad Hatter” Napa Valley 2010 property red Meritage.
Seco New American’s menu is long, its recipes intriguing, and it’s only three months old. Aside from the dishes we recognize and love from Seco’s earlier incarnations and other Smith Brothers’ kitchens, many items await future exploration. No doubt Pasadenans will be dining at Seco over and over without ever coming up dry.
140 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena
Full bar/Major cards