San Marino delight
After 15 years, The Fresh Gourmet remains a pleasure
By Erica Wayne 06/22/2012
The Fresh Gourmet is a diminutive restaurant tucked away on the south side of Huntington Drive in San Marino, a couple of blocks west of Sierra Madre Boulevard, where most of the newer restaurants and shops seem to have clustered. It’s been there for a decade and a half, with little fanfare and a loyal clientele that recognizes both its charm and value.
The eatery’s facade is immediately appealing — a white stucco wall punctuated with arches (one with a colorful stained glass window), topped with a steep magenta roof, window boxes with ferns and wrought- iron and green plastic tables and chairs under green umbrellas. On warm sunny June days, I can hardly pass by without wanting to stop and wile away part of the afternoon with a leisurely lunch.
The interior is even better, especially for an early dinner or intimate midday meal. Inside details include an open truss-timbered ceiling, black and white checkered floor and dark wood chairs surrounding tables draped in forest green cloths, with small vases of white daisies on each. One of the lateral walls is brick (with a trompe l’oeil shuttered, multi-mirror-paned window), one is cream, and the rear wall is deep cherry. It would qualify as a completely formal dining room were it not for the pastry and soft-drink display case and cash-register counter dividing the rear of the seating area from the kitchen.
The Fresh Gourmet’s printed menu is a large one, containing mostly salads (17 of them from $8.89 to $9.29), sandwiches (19 varieties from $8.29 to $9.79) and wraps (six from $8.99 to $9.99). Patrons can also choose from five pastas ($7.59 to $10.99), five southwestern specialties (quesadillas and tacos from $6.99 to $8.99), two rice bowls (both $5.79) and a homemade soup du jour ($3.79 to $4.99). There are also tempting dinner specials (e.g., pork loin with gorgonzola sauce, chicken piccata, brie and roasted garlic ravioli) chalked on the blackboard.
One of the best things about ordering one of the great (and great big) salads, aside from the salad itself, is the bread that accompanies it. Although the menu specifies garlic toast, we were served small rolls that had been drenched in fragrant garlic butter and parsley. Fabulous, but you don’t want to know the calorie count! And the salads themselves were impressive, spanning much of the world — from Asia to Europe to Mexico.
The Fresh Gourmet’s Mandarin poached chicken salad ($8.99) is wonderful, with green onions, celery, mandarin oranges and candied almonds over chopped greens (predominantly romaine) in a sweet and sour vinaigrette. For just 30 cents more, the Thai salad is just as satisfying, with grilled chicken, green onions, julienne cucumber, cilantro, shredded carrots and cooked noodles in a tangy peanut vinaigrette.
I rarely order anything else, although The Fresh Gourmet’s Napa salad (baby greens topped with poached chicken breast, dried apricots, red onions, candied pecans and feta cheese and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette for $9.29), cranberry delight (chicken, toasted almonds, dried cranberries and a sesame poppy seed dressing) and the southwestern Caesar (chicken, romaine, roasted peppers, pumpkin seeds, cojita cheese and pasilla Caesar dressing for $9.29) are all sorely tempting.
Occasionally, I stray to the turkey cranberry sandwich (turkey breast, cranberries, pesto mayonnaise and lettuce on an authentically-textured French rosemary baguette — $9.59 and definitely big enough for sharing). My husband loves the chicken club (grilled fresh chicken, bacon, Monterey jack cheese, bacon, sprouts, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on multigrain bread — $9.29) and, particularly, the manly Manhattan steak sandwich (seared with caramelized onions and topped with tomato and lemon caper mayo, served on a warm roll — $10.99).
Every sandwich comes to the table (or is included in your takeout container) with seasonal fruit (our last-week’s order included honeydew, watermelon and strawberries) and a fresh house-baked chocolate chip cookie. This bonus, however, should definitely not dissuade anyone from examining the sweets in Fresh Gourmet’s display case. The colorful fruit-topped Hawaiian cakes (cupcake-sized) hide a delectable mango mousse filling, and the double chocolate cheesecakes are downright decadent. Both sell for $4.95 apiece.
On the downside, The Fresh Gourmet’s hours are somewhat limited. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday). So if you want to have an evening meal there, you need to do it relatively early. Although the restaurant, like most in San Marino, doesn’t have a liquor license, they have no objection to customers bringing in their own bottles of wine to augment their dinners.
Could it be that the curtailed evening hours at The Fresh Gourmet have something to do with the fact that its owner also runs the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden’s Peacock Café in Arcadia? The lunch menu at the Peacock may be a little less extensive than the one at The Fresh Gourmet, although the offerings do overlap a lot and, since Peacock opens when the park does at 9 a.m., you can get breakfast items like French toast. But the ambiance at Peacock Café is equally or, perhaps, even more appealing, especially if you like live peacocks, who attend their namesake restaurant in great numbers and with great frequency.
The Fresh Gourmet
22004 Huntington Drive,