Pasadena‘s Old Town is a theme park, a marketplace, a date destination, a parking nightmare. It is a strange comment on what constitutes “old” and “town.” You could conduct your entire love life in Old Town and never go someplace more than a decade old: Meet at Barnes & Noble, first coffee at Starbucks, first movie at the UA, dinner at Il Fornaio. Later, assuming all goes well, it’s wedding duds from Saks, home furnishings from Restoration Hardware and kids‘ clothes from Gap Kids.

But Pasadena, thank God, is more than its so-called Old Town. Recent years have brought some quiet development to the neighborhood around Vroman’s bookstore and the Pasadena Playhouse. Within walking distance of these two places have come a new Laemmle multiplex; one of the Southland‘s best bakeries, Euro Pane; and chef Hugo Molina’s eponymous restaurant on Green Street. And now, what may well be the city‘s best restaurant has quietly stolen onto the scene.

Cayo shares a courtyard with the Pasadena Playhouse on El Molino; half a block south of Colorado, it’s a trick to spot. A long, divided room with a bar on one end and a glassed-in kitchen on the other, Cayo has sleek, genteel good looks with a comfortable, warmly lit dining room and many-paned French windows overlooking the courtyard. It‘s a civilized restaurant; that is, you can have a conversation without shouting over the general din. On the night of a Playhouse production, the restaurant bustles up to showtime. On quieter nights, a well-heeled San Marino contingent shares the room with food-savvy hipsters.

Cayo’s chef, Claud Beltran, formerly of Dickenson West, is a rare talent whose ambitions seem to be focused exclusively on the plate. His California-kissed, relaxed French cooking is creative, ingredient-driven and usually downright lovely.

There‘s always an element of surprise. A smoked-trout salad with mizuna and red potatoes is drizzled with a creamy saffron aioli and ignited with big, juicy, pickled caper berries. The three-beet salad with caramelized goat cheese is surprising not only for its jewel-toned colors and clear, fresh flavors, but for the generosity of the portion. A special of the day, duck “carpaccio” salad with nectarines, while potentially luscious, is not as carefully made. Some of the greens are wilted, and the duck turns out to be air-dried and fatty (perhaps the waiter meant to say duck “prosciutto”). Still, there are bites where the salty, chewy meat with dressed greens and juicy nectarines hits the perfect note. In another appetizer, risotto with grilled asparagus, one again sees perfect ingredients and a strong idea, but, tonight, too much lemon in the rice knocks the dish off balance.

Main courses are also generous in size. Who can eat two racks of lamb and their attendant garbanzo beans? You’ll try your best, though, the lamb is so tender and tasty. A veal chop, similarly huge and cooked to the correct level of pinkish succulence, sits on a bed of lightly sauteed fresh tomatoes and chanterelle mushrooms with a small potato galette; I wanted the flavors slightly more married, but that‘s niggling.

Beltran’s fish entrees are superb. He knows how to coax the maximum flavor from beautiful cuts of fish without any loss of delicacy. The ono is cooked in a wedge and sliced into medium-rare slabs over thin flat noodles with lemon and paprika oil. The sauteed grouper is lightly crisped, rife with mild meaty flavor and resting on a divine nest of al dente haricots verts.

The pleasures don‘t end with the entrees. Pastry chef Merilee Atkinson makes thoughtful, delicious desserts. A trembling, creamy buttermilk panna cotta sits between a pool of apricot puree and fresh Persian mulberries on the thinnest crackly cookie; it’s a brilliant, perfect balancing of sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy. Another equally smart composed dessert is her figs and raspberries barely glazed with honey on whipped mascarpone cream; scoop up fruit and cream with crunchy toasted brioche points and top with a few candied almond slices. Atkinson has range, though: Her simple cobbler, with buttery spiced dumplings set deep in the season‘s best peaches and nectarines, is impossible to forget.

Fine dining requires fine service, and the wait staff at Cayo needs to improve significantly to match the intelligence and sophistication of the food. (A few waiters seem to have strayed over from the theater next door and confused their roles.) It’s heartening to find such a fine restaurant in Pasadena; I hope that Beltran and Atkinson are in it for the long run. And that enough customers find them tucked in there beside the Playhouse.

Consider this. An hour of browsing in Vroman‘s, stepping next door to see Girl on the Bridge, then a fabulous dinner at Cayo. What could be better? I’d like to know.

39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; (626) 396-1800. Open Tues.–Sat. for dinner, lunch on Fri. only. Entrees $15–$27. Full bar. Parking on street and in nearby lots. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: trout salad, ono, grouper, rack of lamb, panna cotta, cobbler.

LA Weekly