Illustration by Christine Haberstock
Restaurant Halie, in the historic brick Cheesewright Studios building on Green Street, is pretty discreet-looking from the outside — indeed, the signage is so minimal (a bronze plaque) and the lighting at night so subtle, it’s easy to pass by, even when you’re looking for it.
One night, I stood out front to flag down a friend, who’d already driven by once. While standing on the sidewalk, I noticed that the empty restaurant across the street was about to become a new branch of Greco’s, the popular pizzeria on Fair Oaks Avenue. Just a few months ago, the space had been Hugo Molina, the restaurant of the respected chef who made his name at the Arroyo Parkway Grill. Before Hugo Molina, the place was the Pasadena branch of Outtake Café, and before that it was something else (memory fails), and before that Roxxi. All of these restaurants were decent to excellent — I know, I ate at every one — but not one had endured.
And so, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah and hopefulness for Restaurant Halie — an offshoot of Restaurant Devon, the one serious dining establishment (and wine list) in Monrovia — to open up across the street from such a cursed location. In fact, judging from the success rate of high-end restaurants in Pasadena, especially those located outside of Old Town, it takes courage even to consider the idea. Patina’s famous chef, Joachim Splichal, didn’t succeed with his Pinot at the Chronicle, nor did the Green Street East folks with their upscale offshoot Mackey’s. And Cayo, next door to the Pasadena Playhouse, closed up shop a few months ago, despite the excellent cooking of Claude Beltran. Prospects for fine dining in the area seem, well, grim.
But the human spirit, at least as it expresses itself in new restaurants, seems to be endlessly, miraculously renewed, impervious to the odds.
Indeed, a certain brash optimism and professional naiveté characterize Restaurant Halie — named for the daughter of owner/restaurateur Greg Lukasiewiscz (Devon was named for his other daughter). All this youthful enthusiasm would be more touching if it weren’t quite so pretentious.
The interior is strictly postmodern and spare, with architectural flourishes that seem overambitious and undercapitalized. The bar’s high ceilings are painted a fleshy peach, the wooden beams a dark blue. The dining room walls are deeply, vibrantly red, the gray booths comfortable and deep. “But why are there sheets of plywood on the walls?” my friend asked when we were seated.
“Those are blond wood panels,” I explained. “A design detail.”
“Oh,” she said. “They look just like plywood.”
The menu is a highly produced little booklet with pages of sepia-toned photographs on transparent paper larded with quotations from Virginia Woolf and Henry Thoreau. The very first page bears a list of words that apparently sums up the restaurant’s vision: Defining . . . Fringe . . . Integrity . . . Glamour . . . Progressive
. . . Tradition . . . Birth . . . Oval.
Restaurant Halie, which opened in May, is already on its second chef, and the ambitious opening menu, with three kinds of foie gras and several game entrées, has since grown increasingly humdrum. In the course of my first two visits, I ate nothing that was memorable — not the salad with canned artichokes, or the very average rib-eye steak dry-aged at Howie’s, a local market, or the bland pork tenderloin or the drab scallops. And there were flat-out mistakes: grilled artichokes in a salad were ice cold. And seared foie gras with roasted pineapple, a combination that has worked in other, better restaurants, here just seemed wrong — the fruit’s candylike sweetness was played up and overwhelmed the poor liver.
Then I spotted vintage cake on the dessert menu. I suddenly hoped that Devon’s former pastry chef, the brilliant Jeffrey Johnson (who brought the concept of vintage cakes to Devon), was on Halie’s staff. But one bite of the dull, coarse-crumbed slice proved otherwise.
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My third visit to Restaurant Halie was more encouraging. The restaurant was full — on a Thursday night. A small corporation was hosting a party in the bar. The dining room tables were downright crowded with locals — a vintage-clothes-shop owner was there with her mother; a group of arty young men occasionally broke into happy laughter; a table of professional-looking women celebrated an office success; and several well-heeled older couples dined quietly. There was something quintessentially Pasadenan in the gathering — Restaurant Halie, it seemed, had been discovered, and embraced.
The food still wasn’t as good as the prices (or the menu) suggested. But on this visit, the kitchen seemed a bit more able. Porcini-dusted halibut was actually impressive — the pungent mushroom flavor was a sharp but restrained foil to the nicely cooked mild white flesh. As ever, the undercooked, slightly bitter baby squash were more cute than delicious. The steamed mussels and clams turned out to be all mussels, no clams, served without apology or discount — still, they were sweet and tasty. And dessert — no vintage cake on the menu this time, but instead a hot, juicy little white-peach-and-raspberry cobbler — was excellent.
Are youthful good intentions mixed with brash pretension what Pasadena wants in a restaurant? In a town where so many good chefs unaccountably fail and long lines form for Mi Piace and the Cheesecake Factory, it’s entirely possible.
1030 E. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 440-7067. Open Tues.–Sun. for dinner. Full bar. Major credit cards. Complimentary valet parking. Entrées, $15–$26.