Finest hours

Finest hours

Special treats to go with times of cut-rate drinking

By Dan O'Heron 04/19/2012

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After putting in many Happy Hours from back in the old days, when wee bits of free Kraft Cheese and ham were skewered on a toothpick — often with more wood on the plate than meat or cheese — it was about time that I stepped up to classier tables. 
To gain the most fertile ground with the least effort for today’s moderately priced pub grub, I visited seven upscale spots in a six-square block area of Old Pasadena, beginning with a giddy session at Kings Row Gastropub (20 E. Colorado Blvd., 626/793-3010).
Here, at bartender Andrew Fisher’s stead, I felt comfortable with my stool mates, who had a natural disposition for joie de vivre. 
It was easy to beam over two silver-dollar-sized fried New England cod cakes ($6). Infused with fresh dill, shallots, garlic, paprika, white wine and lemon, they are topped with a mesquite-smoked tomato salsa and sided with strongly flavored lemon aioli mayo. People munching on $7 tandoori chicken pizza were also grinning.
Although this article is more about food than drink, for dessert it seemed appropriate for me to order a peach-infused Jim Beam. 
Moving from one party to another, there are some surprises at the new Haven Gastropub + Brewery (42 S. De Lacey Ave., 626/768-9555). Here you can get mac and cheese with sliced black truffles — other places have the popular dish only trifled with truffle oil. And where else can you get an order of pulverized pork rillettes in a Mason jar? When spread on sourdough toast, you’ll drink to that.
Across the street, at Sushi Roku (33 Miller Alley, at One Colorado, 626/683-3000), my position on pillowed banquettes, fronted by rich leather hassocks, was an enviable one. And some luminous moments in the darkened lounge came with munching on premium black edamame (see-through pods) with Okinawa sea salt ($3), and dengaku, flash-fried tubes of eggplant tossed in a miso glaze ($5).
Next door, at Il Fornaio (24 W. Union St., One Colorado, (626) 683-9797) you can pool your interests in drinking with a colorful antipasto platter. For $5, it comes with Sicilian caponata (a delectable eggplant relish), salami, chunks of sharp, straw-colored Parmesan, rosy-brown prosciutto, grilled artichokes, olives, garlicky bruschetta and a tomato half topped with mozzarella and minty basil.
For a most refined crawl space, slip into POP Champagne & Dessert Bar (33 E. Union St., 626/795-1295). Though its decor is quietly elegant, the room seethes with sexy civility. But there’s no need to brush up on your pickup lines — the person next to you, likely polite and courteous, will show a tender deference to what you are saying, even if you are an idiot.
With desserts like an $8 mini trio of vanilla Crème Brûlée, a chocolate covered strawberry, and Pavlova (named after the Russian ballerina, Anna, it combines a crisp meringue base with whipped cream and fruit), you’ll surely have a libidinous urge to lick someone’s chops.
To warm up, try brie toast with Chardonnay-soaked raisins ($7) or jalapeno tuna tartare, with avocado puree, wonton chips, and cilantro spiced yuzu — a sour Japanese citrus fruit ($9).
But it becomes sweeter to move next door to Quadrupel Brasserie (43 E. Union Ave., 626/844-2922) for rich, dulcet, nutty Gruyere cheese. Tasty enough for out-of-hand eating — or even eating out of a pal’s hand, if they’d let me dog it — it gets even better when melted on a croque monsieur flat bread with Black Forest ham, sharp Dijon mustard and buttery bechamel sauce ($7.50). When served with La Trappe Dubbel Belgium ale, brewed by Trappist monks, it’s a blessing. 
Even after making six breathtaking rounds — much like a golfer with a six-shot lead going into the final round of the Masters — it’ll be a euphoric, walk-in-air moving on to redwhite+bluezz (70 S. Raymond Ave., 626/792-4441). Even arriving at the closing moments of Happy Hour, it’s enough just to contemplate the after-Happy Hour, when the wine/grill and live jazz club continues to pour refinements into a champagne bucket with no bottom.
But in no time, there’s a $14 platter with a world of cheese and charcuterie at your fingertips: France’s Eiffel double Brie, oozing buttery softness; USA’s Amsterdam’s nutlike Gouda; Spain’s smoky Pamplona chorizo; and vanishingly thin slices of Italy’s salt-cured, air-dried prosciutto di Parma.
For a nightcap, I’d think about having the $9 white rum and Maraschino liqueur, named the “Hemingway Daiquiri.” I’m told this was one of Papa’s favorite cocktails. And, I’m sure he’d agree to pay $8 for a cucumber gin gimlet — but only if he was ordering it for someone else.
With full realization that decisions about eating and drinking to delicious excess are not among the greatest issues of our time, they are important points of Old Pasadena’s pride and amusement in getting a little high on cut-rate drinks and a bit wide on appetizing cuisine. 
With all that said, the finest hours might be too rich for some of us. For a stiff drink at a decent price — and no fancy food to get in the way — I might prefer last call at Freddy’s 35er bar (12 E. Colorado Blvd., 626/356-9315), and the mischievous rejoicing in watching others scratch at pool and spill beer. 


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