Being a restaurant writer often imposes the obligation to order dinner for two, even when I’m the only one at the table.
I’m not anxious to be seen fully clothed in Malibu this summer, so, to fit more unobtrusively into a little suit, I’ve cut back on food. It has not been as simple taking less at the take-out, or eating disease-fighting sandwiches that a doctor may have ordered. My success has been dependent on the discovery of light but very tasty dishes at popular restaurants — dishes that get me through until the next judicious meal.
Ordinarily, in getting ready to pose at the beach, I would be loath to accept an invitation to an Italian restaurant — the kind of place you eat to be all you can be. But a friend recently coaxed me into Louise’s Trattoria (2 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626/5658-3030). Here, I was surprised to find a light dish that trumped the sacrifice of not having delicious, thick-set pasta. It came as sliced ahi tuna, seared over organic greens, mingling with red bell peppers, cilantro, mandarin carrots, scallions, julienne carrots and crunchy wontons, with a sprinkling of sesame/ginger vinaigrette.
Later I’d find fish flavor enhanced in a big way by the chopped red and green jalapenos used in the sliced yellowtail sashimi at Sushi Roku (33 Miller Alley, One Colorado Plaza, Pasadena, 626/683-3000). As the game fish, which resembles tuna in flavor and texture, is served raw, “only the freshest and highest quality yellowtail” is said to be used in the chili/fish dish. Other ingredients include chopped scallions, fresh ginger, daikon radish julienne and a ponzu/yuzu sauce. Yuzu is a sour Japanese citrus fruit rind with an aroma that is distinct from lemons of limes.
At the risk of being called a “lotus eater” — the term used by mythic King Odysseus to describe people who survived on lotus water lilies in a drugged and indolent state — I took a trip with Sushi Roku’s “truffled renkon kinpira.” Made of lotus root, whose creamy-white flesh has the crisp texture of a raw potato and a flavor akin to coconut, it comes with fresh black truffles, red chili peppers, truffle oil and soy sauce. After cooking, it is served cold in a bowl.
Taking another page from Homer’s “Odyssey,” Green Street Tavern (69 W. Green St., Pasadena, 626/229-9961) served me a delectable “absinthe-cured” smoked salmon. It was set beneath a clump of feathery frisee and shaved fennel, spotted with roasted red peppers. It is remembered that absinthe — a bitter liqueur distilled from wormwood — was the good stuff that helped drove French artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec into a sadly distorted view of life. Considered habit-forming and good for madness, the liqueur was once banned in the United States. Now, legal after distilling adjustments, absinthe’s distinct licorice flavor imparts this salmon with a slight, but perceptibly different and delicious flavor not strong enough to get you into Betty Ford.
Chef Laurent Quenioux has done some forceful ladling of rich French sauces and gravies at Vertical Wine Bistro (70 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, 626/795-3999). But the James Beard Foundation Award nominee also uses a delicate hand among blossoms in creating salads like wild baby arugula with shaved Parmesan, pine nuts, Serrano ham and honey vinaigrette dressing. And there is an easy-going lightness about his new Atlantic salmon, roasted and topped with citrus and olive oil before being plated with rapini (leafy green and pungent broccoli raab) and yellow beets.
To get into summer suits, I am constantly reminded to get into summer soups, like the gazpacho, served at El Cholo Café (260 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA 91101 (626) 795-5800).
Painstakingly prepared, this “food for thirst” features chopped tomato, onion, cucumber and garlic, with spikes of cumin, black pepper, salt and paprika, dashes of Tabasco and Worcestershire, splashes of tomato juice, vinegar, white wine, olive oil and — uniquely — clam juice. It’s the clam juice that is the key to the bowl’s acclaim. Instead of a pureed blending of hot, mellow, sweet, salty and tart — a mishmash that renders constituent flavors indistinguishable from one another — El Cholo’s cookbook exclaims, “clam juice turns this into a soup of many layers, and you taste something different with every spoonful.”
So pretty is the King’s Row (20 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, 626/793-3010) diamond melon cheese dish — three watermelon slices layered with rich, tangy feta cheese slices, topped with powdered pistachio and chopped mint leaves — it bordered on vandalism for me to take it apart. But after eating it, with my mind still on food, I ordered a cucumber-infused vodka/strawberry cocktail. And after one more, I forgot all about eating dinner and, perhaps, my summer swimsuit ambitions.