A Star-Spangled Bistro

A Star-Spangled Bistro

At Pasadena’s airy new a/k/a, a bistro-style menu gets that American je ne sais quoi.

By Bradley Tuck 04/01/2011

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One of the great things about living in a vibrant city is the bustle of people dashing from shop to shop, chatting over coffee in sidewalk cafes and perusing menus in busy restaurants. The hum of human activity is something so often lacking in Los Angeles, save for certain walkable neighborhoods. Perhaps one of the most attractive hives here is One Colorado Plaza, with its brick façades surrounding a welcoming patio that feels like a stage for street theater in an old European town. Of course, no old European town is complete without a great neighborhood bistro that serves delicious, unpretentious fare, with an owner who remembers customers’ names and perhaps big French doors opening onto a bustling piazza. Well, now Pasadena has just that, in the form of a/k/a (An American Bistro). 
 
One of the great things about living in a vibrant city is the bustle of people dashing from shop to shop, chatting over coffee in sidewalk cafes and perusing menus in busy restaurants. The hum of human activity is something so often lacking in Los 
Angeles, save for certain walkable neighborhoods. Perhaps one of the most attractive hives here is One Colorado Plaza, with its brick façades surrounding a welcoming patio that feels like a stage for street theater in an old European town. Of course, no old European town is complete without a great neighborhood bistro that serves delicious, unpretentious fare, with an owner who remembers customers’ names and perhaps big French doors opening onto a bustling piazza. Well, now Pasadena has just that, in the form of a/k/a (An American Bistro). 
 
Opened on Feb. 9 in a former Gordon Biersch space, a/k/a is a new venture from seasoned restaurateurs Deborah and Robert Simon, both natives of the area. Their other Pasadena establishment, Bistro 45, has been feeding people well for more than 20 years. They opened a/k/a in the quaint Napa Valley town of St. Helena in October 2008 and garnered a Michelin recommendation. It was famously the location for Chelsea Clinton’s bachelorette dinner until the Simons closed it last month, packed up the chef and equipment and moved them here for the new restaurant. A/k/a’s latest incarnation features a huge wall of folding doors that open onto the plaza in front, transforming the dining room into an indoor-outdoor space. Lighting is kind, the walls are painted a deep warm brown, and seating is mostly in high-backed booths that ensconce you in comfort and privacy. There’s a glass-walled wine room at the rear holding more than 2,000 bottles, and the patio in the front is sure to be a major Pasadena destination when the balmy summer evenings kick in. Your table is a two-inch-thick slab of wood that at first feels a little too high, but you quickly get used to it. It’s also easy to adjust to the friendliness of the staff, the relaxed ambience and Robert darting from table to table, carrying plates to diners and chatting convivially. At one point, a server stood looking bemused at the elegant plates balanced on her forearm, clearly trying to remember their destination. She summoned Simon’s attention and pointed to the plates. “Yes, beautiful aren’t they?” he replied, while steering her in the right direction. 
 
The menu is classic bistro with some California twists. Produce is largely local, and Chef Jonathan Wiener, formerly of the Michelin-starred Étoile at Napa’s Domaine Chandon winery, does a terrific job of making these classics come alive with fresh flavors and mouthwatering presentation. God is in the details, as they say, so a roasted winter beet salad comes with crisps of lotus root, fennel pollen and a little cube of an intensely rich Fourme d’Ambert bleu cheese. The beets’ earthiness and texture plays perfectly against the funky tang of the cheese. The cheese looked a little meager at first but was certainly able to hold its own, a lactose David against the beet Goliaths. A charcuterie plate featured some marvelous house-made pâté, a tiny torchon of foie gras with a port-poached pear, Italian prosciutto, house-pickled vegetables (the baby fennel bulb being particularly good) and a bright, tangy, house-made grain mustard. A couple of pieces of bread, a glass of wine and that plate alone could make a satisfying diner-tout-seul on a summer evening.
 
The cassoulet was rich and hearty, everything French comfort food should be, with pieces of crisped confit of duck nestled among the beans, washed down with a lovely 2009 Belle Glos Meiomi California Pinot Noir. The cherry cola, spice and even a touch of almond essence were just what the duck — and I — needed. A double-cut “prairie-fresh” pork chop had been brined for three days prior to being carefully grilled to medium rare in one of the tastiest incarnations of “the other white meat” I’ve come across. Heirloom carrots were sweet and chewy, and I thought I spied a little parsnip but forgot to ask.
 
If, after all this pleasure, you still have room for more, I would recommend caramel ice cream profiteroles with warm chocolate sauce. There’s something defiantly ’70s about profiteroles that makes me think they belong in the same sentence as vol-au-vents, those other triumphs of ‘70s middle-class hostessry. Balls of choux pastry stuffed with ice cream can be called whatever you please. Under any alias they are utterly delicious.
 
After dining, I suddenly realized why the tables were just that bit too high — they are designed to make the journey from the plate to your mouth a little less time-consuming. God is indeed in the details.  

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