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The Pasadena Conundrum

Pasadena is an odd restaurant town -- some very good restaurants struggle and go under, while blatantly mediocre establishments flourish and multiply. Innovative contemporary originals like Yujean Kang and Xiomara fail to attract the large crowds they deserve. And professional restaurateurs like Celestino Drago and Joachim Splichal -- both with brilliant successes elsewhere -- have failed to definitively answer the question: What do Pasadenans want?

To look specifically at Pasadena‘s Old Town, it would seem that corporate, cookie-cutter gloss is in high demand. While this idealized downtown does have a few thriving indigenous cafes (Mi Piace, Sorriso, All India Cafe), most of the area’s bustling places are knockoffs (Il Fornaio, Louise‘s, Gaucho Grill, Crocodile Cafe, Russell’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Tommy Tang‘s, Farfalla). While some of the originals had charm, personality and even a modicum of hipness, all the Pasadena versions tend to be slick and quirkless, designed to serve a pedestrian, transient clientele.

Now, though, comes Cafe Bizou, a restaurant that seems to bridge the gap between the lifeless clones of Fair Oaks and the more sophisticated restaurants that have had trouble catching on. A couple of blocks north of Fair Oaks in a space most recently occupied by the Asian-fusion restaurant Papashon, Cafe Bizou is a spinoff fresh from Sherman Oaks. But unlike the usual model, the Pasadena Bizou is a real step up from the original. Its corner location was designed to be an upscale restaurant -- high ceilings, gorgeous bar, brick walls -- and the new Bizou trades on these good looks. There are white tablecloths and pretty carnations on each table; you might not even notice then that the china and silverware are good, solid cafe ware. The room is a sea of tables, and on a Wednesday night, all of them are filled. The service is swift and friendly, even mildly chirpy; but this is a high-volume restaurant, and all business.

The crowd is a big cross section: families, dates of all ages, businessmen, older couples. I took my dad there for his birthday -- a perfect call. Bizou has finessed the middle-class, straight crowd that so many Pasadena restaurants have tried to woo -- the local, well-heeled citizens from Linda Vista and south Orange Grove and the San Rafael hills. Bizou seems to be the restaurant that Pasadena has been waiting for, a fancy restaurant without fancy prices.

But is it any good? Wellll . . . the food is better than the Cheesecake Factory’s. Under its Asian, Cal-Eclectic and French glosses, Bizou is a basic meat ‘n’ potatoes kind of place. French onion soup is rich and hearty and literally dripping with Gruyere, yet almost too salty. A special fennel salad with grapefruit and Stilton cheese has been made ahead and is served ice cold in a too-sweet dressing. (The sugar content of savory dishes runs high here.) Lobster and salmon ravioli in lobster sauce sounds lavish but, in fact, is mild-to-bland mousse in thick noodles -- this one needs salt! A generous scoop of tuna tartare, served with butter-drenched little toasts, needs something to juice it up. In fact, I‘d skip appetizers and order the dollar romaine salad or soup along with my entree. Braised short ribs are excellent, the meat slow-cooked until it’s almost a candied, dense, tender version of its usual self; with such intense meatiness, the chef is brilliant to serve it with plain mashed potatoes and a heap of good, al dente steamed vegetables. Rack of lamb has a good flavor, but I wish they hadn‘t sliced it off the bone: The meat, ordered rare, cooked in its minted sauce, acquired a boiled texture.

Fish, in particular, is of good quality. The pleasure of a beautiful, lightly grilled slab of yellowtail (a special) is somewhat mitigated by the sweetness of its soy-based sauce; again, the accompanying vegetables, grilled this time, are excellent. The monkfish, while a gorgeous, nicely cooked piece of fish, is otherwise mistreated: First, it comes topped with a tangle of orange, curly-fried carrots -- it’s one of those dishes you see approaching from across the room that makes you mutter, “Oh, dear God, I hope that‘s not coming to me.” The fish comes on bright-orange, over-saffroned, gummy risotto in a pool of, yes, fluorescent orange lobster sauce. What were they thinking?

Desserts are purely ordinary: apple tarte tatin, creme brulee, flourless . . . ZZZZ . . . chocolate . . . ZZZZZ . . . cake, profiteroles. The only unique creation -- bananas cut up in custard in a pastry cup -- justifies sticking with the old standbys.

Nice room, reasonable prices, passable food: Is this the Pasadena solution?

91 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (626) 792-9923. Open for dinner Tues.--Sun. Entrees, $11.95--$17.95. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V. Recommended dishes: French onion soup, beef short ribs.


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