Back in 1985 I wrote about the state of dining in Pasadena. The best high-end restaurants were old-timers Marianne’s and The Chronicle. Newcomers included Parkway Grill, The Raymond, Rosicler, Fish Martini, Il Fornaio, Stoney Point, La Couronne, Café Jacoulet and The Italian Fisherman, most of them now gone.
Time marches on and fashions change. Much of what was hot 30 years ago is passé or clichéd today. As words like ahi, balsamic, applewood, brioche, sriracha, sea salt, hummos, flatbread, multigrain, gluten-free, kale and quinoa start showing up on Coco’s and Mimi’s menus, leading chefs have already moved on.
The National Restaurant Association recently put out an 18-page survey of almost 1,600 chefs titled “What’s Hot — 2016 Culinary Forecast.” Among the trends: local sourcing, natural ingredients, minimally processed food, environmental sustainability, ethnic condiments and spices, farm and estate-branded items, new cuts of meat, house-made artisan pickles and street food (on trucks or not).
Veggie-centric dishes, old-fashioned cooking methods (e.g., pickling, fermenting and smoking), chemical and artificial ingredient-free food, organic everything, humanely treated food animals, more interesting fusion food, hot peppers and small plate restaurants are all gaining in popularity.
Molecular gastronomy, foams and liquid nitrogen chilling and freezing are out. Edible insects, too! And I seem to have missed the brief surge in blood sausage cakes and vaporized cocktails. I’m not mourning the breakup of bacon-flavored chocolate and chocolate-covered bacon. Their divorce was inevitable.
Pasta sales, alas, have dropped as low-carbers eschew even whole-wheat products in favor of grains, seeds and legumes. Spiralizers that turn beets, sweet potato and other veggies into ribbons are becoming incredibly popular thanks to the paleo movement. Smart pasta chefs are combining non-wheat flours with vegetable purées to keep their clientele interested.
Fortunately, many of Pasadena’s top restaurateurs are deeply immersed in the latest and most interesting trends in modern cookery.
Here’s a list of 10 places to visit for truly extraordinary experiences:
1. PARKWAY GRILL started life just after the birth of Southern California-fusion cooking à la Wolfgang Puck. “Parkway,” states its website, “has been a powerful force in the regional American cuisine movement, specializing in a seasonal, market-driven approach to cooking that incorporates diverse influences and classic French technique. … Throughout the years, Parkway’s innovative chefs have showcased an intriguing array of dishes using locally sourced ingredients.”
Selections from their menu illustrate Parkway’s range: Dungeness crab cake with shredded kataifi pasta, mango-piquillo pepper relish and purple mustard frill; seared scallops with cauliflower purée, curried Swiss chard, caper-sultana compote and walnuts; and whole ginger fried catfish, yuzu ponzu, caraway rice and cucumber-mint relish.
(510 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena; (626) 795-1001, theparkwaygrill.com)
2. THE RAYMOND, known for excellent continental fare, former chef-owner Suzanne Bourg’s tenure during the 1980s and ’90s, began a slow transformation after Bourg’s departure, which snowballed in 2014 under the guidance of Chef Tim Guiltinan.
His recipes, as described by their website, are “innovative, contemporary, classic American cuisine with global influences. Utilizing a mix of modern and classic cooking techniques, Guiltinan combines familiar ingredients with an exotic flair to produce a truly singular style.”
Prime examples: Sticky potato with sesame, Korean red chili, scallion and cilantro, Whisper Farm’s aquaponic lettuce with lemon dressing and smoked salt. There’s also wild organic Northwestern mushrooms with forest soil, salsify and smoked vinegar. Steamed blue mussels with Angry Lady sauce, Chinese sausage and Thai chili are among customer favorites, as are hand-harvested scallops with Chinese black garlic, quinoa “fried rice” and fresh edamame.
(1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 441-3136, heraymond.com)
3. RACIÓN, Pasadena’s four-year-old Spanish tapas restaurant, is another masterpiece of culinary creativity. Owned by Loretta Peng with kitchen managed by Shane Alvord, it describes itself as “a modern small plates restaurant … conceived in the spirit of the Avant Garde and great tapas traditions of the Basque region of Spain.” Racion’s “food is inspired by traditional Spanish favorites and highlights the bounty of seasonal produce we enjoy in Southern California.”
Among the inventive tapas are items like citrus-cured salmon with local grapes ajo blanco and trout roe; house-marinated French sardines, pork lardo and strawberry gazpacho, lamb meatballs with Basque cider, Picon and licorice greens; spiced cauliflower with wheatberry porridge, beets and almonds, and charred leeks with pinenut romesco and bone marrow custard.
(119 W. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 396-3090, racionrestaurant.com)
4. ALTAEATS was opened near the Altadena/Pasadena border in early 2013 by chef Paul Ragan and wife Angela Visca, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and ran a restaurant in Madrid for five years. They call their menu “chef-inspired fresh cuisine.” Menus include small plates like chick peas with tomato, harrisa and calamari; pork belly fritters and duck hash with apricot jam; and larger entrées and sides, like roasted carrots with ras al hanout and yogurt sauce.
(1860 Allen Ave., Pasadena; (626) 794-1162,
5) THE EATERY ON ALLEN is owned and operated by Chef Claud Beltran, a visionary whom Pasadena has been lucky enough to claim for over two decades. From earlier gigs at Dickenson West, Cayo, Halie, Madeleine’s and Noir, he moved to northeast Pasadena in 2013 to headquarter his catering operation Claud & Co and open The Eatery, a small venue with menus that change monthly.
This month’s theme is “Modern American,” featuring crispy beef penang tacos with fried wonton shell, cilantro, toasted peanut and sriracha queso fresco; char siu barbecue ribs with raspberry five-spice barbecue sauce and cabbage salad with yuzukosho lemon grass dressing; and foie gras ice cream sandwich on grandma’s oatmeal cookie with chocolate mole sauce.
(488 Allen Ave., Pasadena; (626) 688-7256, eateryonallen.com)
6) BACCHUS’ KITCHEN, another of Beltran’s ventures, opened last year. Its current menu includes heirloom tomato risotto with blistered cherry tomatoes, spring greens, balsamic reduction and shaved parmesan; pan seared striped bass with Korean vermicelli, red bell pepper, zucchini, cilantro and coconut curry sauce; and pan-seared scallops with rice and black beans, tropical squash relish, and orange-ginger star anise reduction.
(1384 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 594-6377, bacchuskitchen.com)
7) THE ROYCE at the Langham Huntington Hotel specializes in fine beef and other fire-roasted meats, but that limitation doesn’t stop Chef Perry Pollaci from adorning them with sides like bone marrow gratin, summer truffle, soft polenta with aged gouda or wild mushroom fricassee. His halibut is served with coconut rice, lobster, crab and bouillabaisse broth, while yellowfin tartare comes with yuzu dressing, green apple and crisp rice.
(1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 585-6410, roycela.com)
8) THE TERRACE, the Langham’s less formal venue, may have an even more inventive and wide-ranging menu. Crispy fingerlings are served with harissa aioli, lime, cotija and sweet chili lebni while cauliflower pakoras in chickpea batter come with green goddess dressing, espelette and crispy kale. Grilled salmon is paired with tarragon spätzle, beurre rouge, sugar snap peas, broccolini and baby rainbow carrots.
(1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena (626) 585-6218, langhamhotels.com/en/the-langham/…/the-terrace)
9) UNION was opened by Chef Bruce Kalman (a specialist in pork, pickles and pasta among other talents) and partner Marie Petulla in 2014. Their website describes this Old Pasadena eatery as “an intimate neighborhood restaurant that brings the farmer and guest together to celebrate the simplicity of ingredients and the delight of a meal with friends.”
Among recurring menu items are bread with cultured butter and giardiniere; shaved fennel salad with arugula, grapefruit, house-made ricotta and fennel sorbet; wild mushrooms with C&T polenta, Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar, sage and rosemary; tagliatelle with pork ragu, parmigiano-reggiano and gremolata; and porchetta with Weiser Farm potatoes and salsa verde.
The dessert list usually includes olive oil cake with citrus gastrique and salted honeycomb gelato as well as gianduja chocolate budino with cocoa nib, truffle salt and Ligurian olive oil.
(37 E. Union St., Pasadena; (626) 795-5841, unionpasadena.com)
10) ALEXANDER’S STEAKHOUSE, celebrating its first birthday this month is the latest of Pasadena’s cutting-edge kitchens, one of a small international chain. (The company operates four others in Cupertino, San Franciso, Taipei and Tokyo, as well as a fish house in Palo Alto and patisseries in Mountain View and Cupertino.) The chain features beef, but each local chef is free to riff on appetizers, sides and desserts.
Some of Pasadena Chef Matt Bata’s inventive starters include toast with green garlic rouille, duck liver ragu and Muscat grape jam; grilled cook’s pork belly with pear cream, burnt honey gel, cumin dashi and saffron pears; and Passmore Ranch sturgeon terrine with caviar, dashi buttermilk and sturgeon chicharrones.
Venison is served with wheatgrass emulsion, sea buckthorn and mustard miso. Crispy duck breast is prepared with buckwheat confit tamale, sakura jus and cherry-chili compote. Beef (including Aurora Angus, MM Farms Holstein, Greater Omaha prime and prized Wagyu) is prepared simply, but sides like creamed taro leaves with cured beef, taro chips and parmesan; summer succotash with chorizo, nouc mam, orange and red onion; and miso-baked beans with crispy potato strings and pickled jalapeño are available for augmentation.
(111 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena; (626) 486-1111, alexanderssteakhouse.com)
Dedicated foodies likely recognize all the ingredients mentioned in the above-cited dishes. (I purposely didn’t translate.) But there’s no reason to be embarrassed if you don’t. Top-tier chefs are involved in a never-ending worldwide search for new and unusual foods, flavors and cooking techniques. Ones with a wide appeal are like sriracha, which I saw featured on a McDonald’s billboard the other day, trickle-down trends.
As for those who find the more exotic and esoteric recipes a bridge too far, we can rejoice that the absolutely hottest food out there right now seems to be fried chicken! On a sandwich, paired with waffles, biscuits, grits or mashed potatoes, doused in hot sauce, red-eye gravy or covered in maple syrup — no matter what the prep, it’s No. 1.
Barbecue isn’t doing too badly either. Neither are beer, ice cream and classic pies. Just memorize a few words to guide you in your choices: organic, free-range, grass-fed, craft, artisan, local and house-made. Abide by these and almost anything you eat will likely be trending up.