Someone should give Santos Uy a prize. The restaurateur has made a practice of backing projects that have more personality in their door frames than many restaurants exhibit in their entirety. These projects include RiceBar, the Filipino rice-bowl counter, and Mignon, a wine bar downtown that also houses Cento Pasta Bar during the daytime. Mignon, in both its daytime and nighttime guises, feels like a space plucked right out of Paris, its jumbled intimacy imbued with the type of vintage bohemia that's rare in this glam city.
Uy, along with chef Tim Carey, also is behind Papilles Bistro, another tucked-away gem that could be in a Paris neighborhood rather than a Hollywood strip mall. As with all his projects, at Papilles Uy has partnered with a chef and allowed that chef's specific, oddball personality to shine through, which in Carey's case means serving a nightly prix fixe meal based on French technique and very good ingredients, for around $38.
And now Uy and Carey have partnered again, for a restaurant that is perhaps the most conventional project in this restaurateur's decidedly unconventional collection of businesses.
This is not to say that Lost at Sea, which sits on downtown Pasadena's Holly Street, is without heaps of personality. It is. But the vaguely nautical-feeling storefront with windows that overlook a business district sidewalk does not have the same stumbling-into-someone-else's-dream quality that Mignon and Papilles and even RiceBar have. Those restaurants are so very specific. Lost at Sea is cozy and appealing, with its black subway tile and blue walls, its white-painted and wood tables, its fresh flowers and round mirrors that evoke portholes. It has a human scale that is one of the trademarks of Pasadena's best restaurants. (Union and Ración, I'm looking at you.) But it's nowhere near as lovably odd as Uy's other projects.
What Carey and Uy seem to want to achieve here is fairly straightforward: a neighborhood seafood restaurant with cooking that reaches significantly higher than that of the average fish house, and a wine list that follows suit.
Opening a small neighborhood, food- and wine-driven seafood spot is a fairly common dream for several chefs I've known, especially ones who love the sauté station above all others. Many cooks, as they rise through the kitchen ranks, gravitate toward the machismo of the grill over the delicate dance of sauté. This is part of why — now that cooks rule the world — everything is so very meaty.
Much of the fish you do see is whole or grilled or raw. A beautifully cooked piece of fish that's done in a pan and not over live fire, with its crisp crust and soft flesh underneath, is hard to come by. But for the chef who loves the sauté station, there's no greater expression of a line cook's artistry than that golden-edged fish. I've known a few dudes with that particular penchant, and all of them have said to me: One day I want to open a small seafood restaurant. Nothing too fancy. But with things cooked right.
I'm going to assume that Tim Carey is just such a sauté station–loving chef. He's certainly a fan of doing things the old-school way, of doing things right. This is true at Papilles and it's true at Lost at Sea as well. And it makes for some subtle, lovely dining in both places.
There are lots of crudos on the menus of L.A. these days, but few of them showcase the flavor and texture of the fish so beautifully as Carey's fat slices of cobia, which come in a pool of tomatillo aguachile. The aguachile delivers just enough tang for contrast, without overwhelming the buttery sweetness of the fish.
There's a small porcelain box that holds crudite made from carrots and radishes and peppers sticking up vertically, their tips sitting in a smoked albacore tonnato, creamy and oceanic and tasting lightly singed. Here, as at Papilles, Carey is a master of soups, whether it be the entree-sized seafood soup imbued with the perfume of saffron, or one of his gorgeous veloutés, which manage to be fluffy and creamy and deeply flavored all at once.
I've always been impressed with Carey's dedication to traditional skills over cheffy showboating, his ability to present dishes that adhere more to classic fine-dining standards than they do to modern trends or sloppy rusticism. This is beautifully apparent in his butter-poached lobster, which comes with some of that fluffy velouté as well as sweet batonettes of butternut squash, Fresno chili and meaty lobster mushrooms. There are knife skills and technique in use here that few working chefs even know anymore, let alone use.
But I get the feeling that part of the reason Carey is able to execute this type of cooking so flawlessly at Papilles is the prix fixe menu and the control and predictability that format allows. There were cooking issues at Lost at Sea that seemed as though they stemmed from a rushed kitchen: a curl of octopus with mole that was seriously over-salted; a hunk of monkfish that had that gorgeous golden crust but was too raw in the center and weirdly rubbery as a result.
And service, too, often has the electric anxiety of being so far in the weeds that you want to get up and take a few orders just to make the place feel more relaxed. One night it took a full 45 minutes after the waitress opened our bottle of wine for her to come back to the table and take our dinner order. There was a large, demanding table nearby, but this is a small restaurant. If our server was too busy to notice us, someone else should have stepped in. When she did finally return, she said, "Do you want to put in an order before the kitchen closes?" It was only 8:15, so the remark could not be taken literally, but if it was supposed to be a nerve-soothing joke about how long it had been, then there are some lessons in comedy (and hospitality) that need to be learned.
Just as at his other restaurants, I love Uy's wine list here, full of affordable but offbeat bottles. Uy is often on the floor, but I never was able to talk to him about the list, and instead encountered servers who used a lot of phrases like "dancing minerality" but who also terribly mischaracterized the wines I asked about. I'm not sure if this is a gap in training, or servers pretending to know more than they do. I just know I ended up with wine I didn't particularly enjoy from a list brimming with good options.
These days, many restaurants emerge fully hatched, so hopped-up on PR and concept that they have no room to be anything other than what the marketing team dreamed up. There are pluses and minuses about this, from a consumer standpoint. The plus side is you'll probably know on day or week three whether this place is for you, and there's less room for bumpy experiences caused by actual humans trying to figure it out as they go. The downside is that same loss of humanity, the sense that this is someone's dream and they're going to have to struggle to make it work.
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The very thing I love so much about Uy and Carey's restaurants — that deep sense of humanity — is also the reason for Lost at Sea's current unevenness. Regardless of salt and service issues, I'd still rather eat here than at half the slickly perfect restaurants in town. Whether you have the same growing-pains patience is probably the thing that should determine whether you want to eat at here just yet. Either way, I have no doubt that eventually, Lost at Sea will grow into a more reliably elegant beast — and when it does, it will join the ranks of lively, personal, human-scale restaurants that make Pasadena such an emphatically pleasant place to dine.
LOST AT SEA | Two stars | 57 E. Holly St., Pasadena | (626) 385-7644 | lostatseapas.com | Tue.-Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. | Plates, $8-$42 | Wine and beer | Street and nearby lot parking