I adore Robert Simon. I’ve loved him ever since he and his father Alvin opened Café Jacoulet in the ’80s, when Robert and I were both children. I loved him even more when he opened Bistro 45 in the ’90s and even more when he opened A/K/A a decade or so ago. I love him because he brought Hideo Yamashiro (who eventually opened Shiro in South Pas) from the Westside and because Alvin opened and ran Cinnabar in Glendale.
My love hasn’t gone unrequited. Every meal at one of Robert’s restaurants or Alvin’s or Shiro’s is a gift. And even though Robert has a wife and children and I have a husband and stepchildren, the bond between us is a deep and lasting one, based on a life-long passion for food. It will likely last as long as one or more of Robert’s restaurants remain in Southern California.
A/K/A, subtitled An American Bistro, occupying a central position in the One Colorado shopping complex in Old Pasadena, recently underwent a minor makeover of its décor and a major makeover of its menu to transition into Alma de la Rosa (a South of the Border bistro). The transformation was complete by February but the One Colorado signage still bears the restaurant’s former name. Nevertheless, plenty of fans have easily found Alma and given it high marks.
We got our first opportunity to visit during the recent Pasadena Restaurant Week. We ordered from the $45 prix fixe menu put together for the event so our exploration of the new menu is to date limited. I had to squelch a longing for scallop and wild white shrimp ceviche with mango ($16), braised Niman Ranch pork belly with black plantain purée ($13) and arroz con pollo with black rice, chicharron cream and shaved heirloom beets ($25) for a later time.
The prix fixe included Caesar salad with pepitas for two, seared yellowfin tuna with avocado butter, pickled chilies and cucumbers, baseball cut all-natural prime top sirloin with lime garlic and oregano mojo, Mexican chocolate terrine with cardamom ice cream, and caramel pudding, all of which would have set us back more than $100 if ordered à la carte. (Prices at Alma, like those of most of Pasadena’s finest, make it a destination restaurant rather than a weekly haunt.)
To drink: an on-tap Coronado/Cigar City Conquista IPA ($9) served in a traditional 16-ounce glass. While we sipped and awaited our dinner in one of the big enveloping booths, we watched a server dress an unwieldy (due to the uncut romaine leaves) Caesar for five for an adjacent table. Ours was prepared in the kitchen but, aside from the theatrics, there was no deficiency. Plenty of lemon, a hint of anchovy, lots of good cheese, crispy croutons and lightly spiced toasted pumpkin seeds.
Our entrées came while we were still wrestling with the last few leaves of romaine. The steak was rare and juicy — slightly more oblong than round but as high as wide. The meat was flavorful, but sirloin — even prime sirloin — just isn’t as tender as rib eye or filet. What elevated it was the accompanying mojo, a truly fabulous dipping sauce. And the brilliant orange yams with a chili butter kick and the emerald green beans with butter slightly sweetened with sautéed onion were fantastic sides.
The yellowfin tuna formed a floral pattern with six slabs of rosy fish as petals, a thick mound of pale green avocado butter purée forming its central disk and a sprinkling of cilantro on its top. Almost completely hidden beneath fish and butter was a tangy and sweet julienne of cucumber and pickled chilies, a perfect complement. I would order it again in a heartbeat but not until I’ve explored the other items on my must-try list.
Our desserts were equally beguiling. Who could resist the rectangle of dark chocolate lusciousness garnished with whole raspberries, surrounded by puddles of raspberry purée and topped off-center with a generous scoop of housemade ice cream? Not me, although I was a tad disappointed that the advertised cardamom was either way too subtle or (more likely) Mexican vanilla.
And the caramel pudding? Served in a turquoise ceramic bowl, topped with a blob of heavy whipped cream and stabbed by a piece of delectable pepita brittle I wish I could buy by the pound, it had only one defect. The rage of spiking chocolate, caramel and butterscotch puddings, ice creams, pastries and candies with sea salts just isn’t my thing. So as thick, rich and dreamy as the pudding was, I was quite content to let my husband lap it up while I stole more than my share of the candy garnish.
Service was perfect, with just enough queries about our satisfaction from both server (Carl) and manager (Avery) to let us know they cared, but not so many as to be obtrusive. We had a nice conversation with Avery about the holdovers from the A/K/A menu (I’m glad to see that the black mussels with smoked Manila clam broth, house chorizo and lemon and the grilled and sautéed calamari with chipotle, cilantro and roasted peppers are still around.)
Crispy portobello fries that used to come with truffle aioli are now served with aioli flavored with serrano and jalapeño chilies ($11) and several fish and meat cuts remain on the list with new more Latin sauces: e.g., Meyer lemon, chili butter for salmon ($29), green mole for pork ($30), chimichurri and huitlacoche reductions for various cuts of beef ($38 and $40).
There are great new Latin-leaning cocktails, a carefully chosen 50-plus item list of nearly all South American and Spanish wines ($13-$16 per glass, $36-$345 per bottle), several ports and sherries ($9-$17 a glass) and a slew of complex mescal and tequila-based cocktails ($13-$15).
I hope Robert had lots of fun with his renovation, although he didn’t have to do it for me. As I said from the start, I’m one of his biggest and oldest fans. The new Alma de la Rosa only enhances my admiration.
Te amo, Roberto. Gracias!
Alma de la Rosa
41 Hugus Alley, Pasadena | (626) 564-8111 | almadelarosa.com | Full Bar/Major Cards