Photo by Anne Fishbein

Restaurant Halie in Pasadena has a new chef. And not just any new chef, but Claud Beltran, a local chef whose classical Cal-French cooking I’ve admired for years — first at Dickenson West, a pricey French jewel box in a mini-mall, then at Cayo, a big ambitious restaurant next door to the Pasadena Playhouse. Despite Beltran’s terrific cooking, Cayo closed its doors. Meanwhile Restaurant Halie, another Pasadena restaurant, opened a couple of years ago with grand ambitions but a weak kitchen. So hey, Beltran at Halie? While it seemed far from inevitable, the match could be kismet. Or — and this seems closer to the truth — a marriage of convenience.

On an unseasonably hot day, we stopped for lunch and were grateful for the cool red cave that is Halie’s dining room — and the salads on the menu. “It’s hot out there,” we commented to the waiter.

“I know. I got so hot coming to work, I soaked through my shirt, which is why I’m waiting tables in a T-shirt.”

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We ordered salads and they were not anything like the lush, ample Beltran salads of previous experience. Asparagus stalks, tangled on a plate with feta cheese and dressing, were raw and starchy. Thai shrimp salad proved to be a spare plate of greens topped with shrimp tossed in a murky, sweet red curry sauce — equally unappealing to eye and mouth. A goat cheese salad with beets and melon was more inspired — beets and cantaloupe do bring out the best of each other — but, as I pointed out to our parboiled waiter, there was no goat cheese.

He snatched up the plate. “Hey, he’s makin’ me look bad!”

Who, we wondered, was he? If Beltran was in the kitchen, he must’ve been cooking blindfolded, with one hand.

I returned on a Sunday night. To get to our table, we were led through a large, loud graduation party in the front rooms, to a dining room where the din was somewhat less.

The dinner menu with its two photocopied pages was a far cry from Halie’s first, ambitious bill of fare, a highly produced booklet interspersed with sepia-toned photographs on transparent paper and quotations from Virginia Woolf and Henry Thoreau. Perhaps in response to customer pressure — the Pasadena eating public has been sturdily unsupportive of innovation and ambition in fine dining — this menu is meat-and-potatoes, literally and figuratively.

We ordered the asparagus salad again — and again, the spears came out raw and starchy, though the feta-based dressing had substantial character. Because Beltran has historically incorporated Mexican elements into his cooking — he worked in a Mexican cheese factory for a couple years between cooking jobs — I looked forward to his Ensenada-style shrimp cocktail. But the indifferently cooked shrimp were tasteless and even the tomatillo salsa lacked zing. No salt on the table, either — you had to ask for it.

But then came the entrées. A charred-rare rib-eye may have been closer to medium, but who cared? The flavor and juiciness transcended that. And the pork chop, if anything, was even more delicious: big, sweet pork flavor and succulence. Never mind that the accompaniments were also indifferently cooked and heaped on the plates — the pork’s mustard sauce too acidic, the steak’s green beans alternately al dente and shriveled — the meats were extraordinary. When our waiter came for our plates, I asked, “Is Claud in the kitchen?”

“Not tonight — Sunday’s his night off.”

So next time, I made sure he was in the kitchen. And the food was significantly better. The red and green romaine salad — basically, a caesar — had that Beltran lusciousness, as did the frisée with fried prosciutto: good, strong dressings, fabulously fresh ingredients. This was more like it. The lamb loin was yet another astonishingly good hunk of meat: tender, deeply flavorful, usually delicious. I, who have always admired Beltran’s way with fish, was talked into the “white plate special” — white asparagus, white cannellini beans, white king salmon. Unfortunately, except for a whiff of truffle oil, the overall dish — including and especially the nice wedge of fish — was as bland as its name. Again, the asparagus was virtually uncooked! White asparagus, so ready to turn silken with the slightest kiss of steam, here again was raw, starchy, utterly, even criminally unrealized.

Beltran has always had good dessert chefs — and this remains true at Halie. The cool, silken passion fruit panna cotta came with a crisp, thin almond cookie and a heady coconut sorbet, and a made-to-order blackberry soufflé was surprisingly sophisticated and adept — soft eggy custard, big beautiful bursts of berry.

For some reason, Beltran appears to be in some kind of minimalist mode, preparing food with minimal technique and minimal presentational flourish. But the chef is deeply talented, and presently all that talent seems concentrated in meat. It’s as if he’s made a deep, meditative dive into the art and nature of pork, lamb, steak — almost to the exclusion of everything else. I would not go back to Halie for the deconstructivist décor; I certainly would not go back for the uneven service (attentive busboys carry the stations); and I’d never go back when there’s a big party in the front rooms. If and when I return, it will be for meat.

Restaurant Halie, 1030 E. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 440-7067. Lunch 11:30 a.m.– 2 p.m., dinner 6–10 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. Entrées $15–$32. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

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