Craft Hill and its sisters sit at the culinary summit

Happy pre-St. Patrick’s Day readers! I bet you were expecting this week’s review to cover one or more of the best places to celebrate the holiday with corned beef and cabbage washed down with pints of green beer. My suggestion for tomorrow night (and for good Irish food, drink, music and company any evening at all) is Griffins of Kinsale, a 5-year-old pub at 1007 Mission Street in South Pasadena which greets visitors with the Gaelic “céad míle faílte” (literally “a hundred thousand welcomes”) printed on its menu.   

But as much as I love Griffins, today’s review focuses on another South Pasadena restaurant, one whose site has housed many eateries over the past several decades, some longer lived than others. In my near 40-year residency, I’ve reviewed Tommy Lasorda’s in the ’80s, Champs, Cabo and P’zazz in the ’90s and Carmine’s (which boasted an almost 20-year run from 1996 to 2015). Before my time I’ve been told the original occupant was Heckel’s, a traditional dinner house, and following its demise a steak house called Benson’s.

We almost missed the last inhabitant. Driving up Fair Oaks about a year ago, I noticed the Carmine’s sign was gone and a new one “Sow House” had taken its place. I presumed from the name that the menu would be heavy on barbecue, but by the time I finally checked it out a few months later, Sow House (turns out “sow” referred to planting rather than lady pigs) was gone and Craft Hill had taken its place. Same owners though (they run two other Craft Hills née Sow Houses in Monrovia and West Covina) and nearly identical menus.

We figured we’d better check out Craft Hill before another transmogrification takes place, so we headed over for lunch late last week. At noon, the restaurant was nearly empty and we joked that perhaps the next title should be Craft Downhill. Unfortunately, this idea was reinforced when our server came back to let us know that the bottles of Stone Ruination 2.0 and Wandering Aengus Anthem Cider, which we ordered after my disappointed husband was told their draft beers didn’t come in full pints, were no longer available.

Settling for water, we picked a starter of fig leaf pizza ($15), with toppings of port-soaked figs, prosciutto and chèvre. It took a while to arrive, but when it did it was lovely. A glossy crusted oval painted lightly with marinara, covered over with a light layer of mozzarella, then sprinkled with lots of plump fig pieces and plenty of chèvre before baking and then a generous garnish of emerald arugula. But, uh-oh, we soon noticed there was nary a sign of ham or, after we made our discovery, of our server.

Following a few minutes’ wait, I wandered through the restaurant into the back bar room, found somebody who I presume was a manager and told him about the omission. Graciously, he located our waiter and not only was the remaining pizza returned to us decked with lots of prosciutto but we were offered an additional pizza to take home.

The rest of our lunch was a lot less problematic. Without hesitation, my mate chose an excellent Reuben variant with red cabbage sauerkraut, gruyere and Russian dressing on marbled rye with a side of fries ($12), while I dithered over ordering a soft shell crab or fried chicken sandwich, each $14. I finally decided on the crab and chose tomato soup as my go-with.

Both of us liked our sandwiches. He more than I since the beauty of the plump golden brioche that held my crunchy crab, spicy red cabbage slaw and remoulade in place was only skin deep. Rather dry, it detracted from the filling and I left it uneaten. But the fries and soup were really exceptional. Both arrived in deep, six-inch diameter ceramic bowls — a huge portion of hot-from-the-fryer skin-on hand-cut potato and an equally enormous serving of heavily creamed, Italian herb-scented coral bisque.

In addition to our lunch, I put in an order for Craft House’s two pastas (egg yolk pappardelle with “locally foraged” mushrooms – $17 and hand-cut chitarra with prosciutto and manila clams – $18). Before they and our sorry-for-the-mistake pizza made it to our table, I asked to see the dessert list. He replied that there was no printed list but named four: bread pudding, pot de crème, brownie and panna cotta at prices ranging from $6-$8 all of which sounded pleasant but not intriguing enough to add to our meal.

That evening I unpacked the pastas and divvied up the congealed but still attractive clumps of inchwide papardelle heaped with sautéed multi-shaped mushrooms and guitar-string noodles topped with crisply fried shreds of prosciutto and surrounded by a ring of well more than a dozen tiny clams still enshrined in their shells. And once the delicate buttery sauce on the tender papardelle and the piquant garlicky coating on the chewy chitarra had been liberated by the miracle of modern microwavery, our appreciation of the Craft Hill kitchen rose considerably.

Excellent under less-than-ideal reheating, both these dishes easily warrant retrying as freshly made entrées.

So, assuming a longer existence for Craft Hill than its earlier incarnation Sow House, we’ll definitely be returning to have them again. Since the description of Craft Hill’s caesar salad ($11) includes anchovy filets, we’ll probably order one of those too. And finally, if we enjoy our meal as much as we expect, we’ll raise a glass of one of the sustainable and/or organic reds on the wine list and drink to a long and successful life for South Pasadena’s Craft Hill and its sisters at the top of the restaurant ridge.