You can learn a lot about a restaurant by seeing how it functions in moments of chaos. On this particular night at Ración, my guess is that someone — at least one someone, maybe two — didn't show up to work. The dining room is two-thirds full, and the sole waitress is harried, enough so that, if you look very closely, you can see terror behind her eyes. Owner Loretta Peng is playing backup, seating customers and speaking eloquently about wine before disappearing into the kitchen, presumably to help on that front. Food is taking longer than usual to come out.
Yet the customers at all those tables don't seem to notice. This is, in part, because Peng and staff are doing a heroic job of keeping their predicament from the rest of us. It is, in part, because the food, when it does arrive, is as carefully plated and beautifully conceived as ever. And it is, in large part, because Ración has one of the most intimate and convivial dining rooms in all of Greater Los Angeles.
Unlike so many of the kale salads and bowls of blackened Brussels sprouts that taste good but could be made by any of 1,000 cooks, the food at Ración could only be here, in this place, from these people. Those people are Peng, who serves as the general manager and pastry chef, and chef Teresa Montaño.
The two met while working on the Border Grill food truck, and neither of them is much tied to the land from which they take their inspiration, the Basque region of Spain. Montaño is a former basketball star for Pepperdine; Peng has a business degree from Colombia and kitchen experience with David Bouley. But the food of Spain called to them, in particular the tradition of creative fine dining in San Sebastián. And after years of planning, they arrived here in 2012, on this leafy street in Pasadena.
From the minute I first encountered Ración's small wooden sign hanging over a storefront window, I was heartened. I had heard there was great, Basque-tinged food here, but I hadn't anticipated the feel of the place, the stylish warmth and intimacy. Here was a restaurant that felt like the places you discover down winding streets in Paris, tucked into neighborhoods in Brooklyn and, perhaps most obviously, as the favorite of sophisticated locals in San Sebastián.
We don't have enough venues like this — even if Ración had been serving simple, quality tapas, I'd have fallen for the place. But the menu's much, much better than that, showcasing some of the history and tradition of the Basque but also the forward-thinking creativity for which Spain's food is known but which is so rarely translated properly in the United States.
And so, although the room is utterly comfortable and on the edge of informal (in the best possible sense), there's nothing blasé about this food. Named Ración to distinguish it from the tapas craze, you won't find any simple boquerones here, nor will you be able to get a platter of paella. Instead, brilliant orange, citrus-cured salmon might lay draped across your plate nestled against a creamy, thick sauce based on ajo blanco, the white Spanish soup made with crushed almonds and garlic. The fish is dotted with local grapes and the glimmering jewel-like saline pop of trout roe. So clean yet so complex — like much of Montaño's work, it is stunning.
House-made squid ink pasta, served with mussels and piquillo peppers and giving off the soft perfume of saffron, is impossibly light — a trick made all the more magical when it's done with black pasta.
That black-on-light maneuver is played to even greater effect with the milk-poached asparagus, which comes smothered in a coating of black garlic goop, looking both beautiful and menacing but tasting only beautiful. You'll also often find a smear of black squid ink under the tender, savory, duck sausage–stuffed squid.
Even the things on the menu that more closely resemble the Spanish small plates that have swept the globe distinguish themselves by being more complex, better executed, more fussed over. Lamb meatballs are juicy and just a touch funky and brought to shining light by a sauce made of Basque cider (the drinks list also has a number of wonderful ciders to choose from, should you desire). Caña de Cabra cheese is served with citrus and pistachio but is turned on its bloomy, goaty head when the kitchen brûlées it, forming a sticky, crackly foil to the cheese beneath.
There is the (very) occasional dish at Ración that looks better than it tastes, but more often there is something that sounds straightforward but comes out looking like a work of modern art and tasting like nothing you imagined. This is food more touched by the best of international fine dining than it is by the jumble of small plates seen everywhere these days.
I worry for places like Ración, modest operations run by chef-owners without the backing of big-money restaurateurs or the cheering section of highly paid PR firms.
There's nothing particularly glitzy or trendy about the place, aside from the food, which is as innovative and original as anything you might find in restaurants that proclaim their ambitions more loudly. But diners tend to have their attention caught by shiny things, places with hype and bravado, and I fear that the quiet, intimate pleasures of Ración have gone ignored by too many.
Put down the charred Brussels sprout, step away from the glitz. Head for something quieter, and vastly more thrilling.
RACIÓN | Three stars | 119 W. Green St., Pasadena | (626) 396-3090 | racionrestaurant.com | Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-10 p.m.; Fri., 6-11 p.m.; Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Lunch: Tue.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. | Plates, $5-$46 | Beer and wine | Street parking