Photo by Anne Fishbein
MADRE'S, JENNIFER LOPEZ'S NEW RESTAURANT IN PASADENA, IS probably not what you'd expect. Unless you're expecting a grandmother's parlor. Or, rather, a fairy godmother's parlor. Madre'sis old-fashioned and charming, pedigreed Shabby Chic. Indeed, Shabby Chic guru Rachel Ashwell herself put the place together in a record five weeks, painting the walls a mottled oyster gray with white trim and filling the rooms with ruffled linen, damask and innumerable crystal chandeliers. Tables are adorned with mismatched fine rose-patterned porcelain sugar bowls, chargers and bud vases with garden roses. Shelves laden with votives, a Santerían touch, blaze in each room. Ashwell groks the line between charming and cute, tasteful and twee, overstuffed and stuffy — and Madre's is a testament to this refined, feminine sensibility. The place will make you sentimental for that big-hearted grandmother you never had — not to mention the heirlooms you will never inherit.
Lopez has given control of her restaurant space — which once belonged to Pasadena chop house the Chronicle — to her first husband, Ojani Noa, and to dining-room manager Danny Wolfson-Rodriguez. There were opening glitches — the telephones were so busy almost nobody could get through, and the place was booked weeks in advance — but Madre's is now running with admirable professionalism. Servers are intelligent, friendly and charming. The music (classic Cuban, no J-Lo) is lively and loud — but you can still carry on a conversation. The menu is Cuban, with the occasional Puerto Rican twist. (You can, for example, have your fufu fried, which makes it into Puerto Rican mofongo.) And the portions are more than ample — as one friend said, eating at Madre's will definitely make your butt big.
That said, there's a disconnect: The place is so impeccably outfitted and the service so pro and gracious, it's a surprise that the food is, unfortunately, largely bulk-prepared. It's reminiscent of Cuban wedding food. (Delicious Cuban wedding food, but catered fare nonetheless.) From papas rellenas (fried mashed-potato balls filled with spicy ground beef) to hand-size codfish fritters, from pernil asado (roasted pork leg) to rabo encendido (braised oxtail), this is what you'd find on steam tables at high-end buffets at Cuban social events. The food is heaped on the plates, albeit with a certain elegance (fufu and mofongo in three cute ice cream scoops, rice molded neatly in bowls, stewed meats on beds of tasty long-caramelized onions), but still heaped.
Appetizers tend to the gargantuan. Split an order of crispy mojo-drenched chicken wings or the splendidly simple avocado salad. An order of cod cakes or tamales, both tasty enough, will wreck any two appetites. Citrus-marinated filet mignon is achingly tender and flavorful and cooked to order. Oxtails are fall-apart tender, meaty and well-seasoned. The roasted leg of pork, however, is dry and stringy, though revived somewhat by that garlicky, citrus-spiked ajo. Shrimp are also overcooked, dry, despite their ajillo, a garlic-and-olive-oil sauce. At lunch, the Spanish tortilla (a potato omelet) is also overcooked and dry.
My favorite entrée is a special long-roasted pork shank; big enough for a family of four, it's cooked with the skin on until it turns a deep lacquered brown, and most resembles a caveman's club. The inside is moist and tender, the outside a crisp, insanely good crackling. (Another moment of disconnect: four model-thin, beautiful, scantily clad young women, each feeding on her own enormous shank . . .)
Desserts are as unrefined and basic as everything else, which is a good thing. Try the tres leches, cake soaked in sweetened milks; the firm, not-too-sweet, well-caramelized flan; the puff pastry filled with guava; or the sturdy, guava-flavored bread pudding.
Madre's looks and feels and charges like a restaurant that should have a real chef — someone capable of the innovations one finds in Miami's groundbreaking Nuevo Latino cuisine — not just a high-end caterer. Then again, Lopez and her staff may be on to something. This is Pasadena, after all, where the longest lines are for the Cheesecake Factory, and where portion size and predictability are prized above all else. Few high-end restaurants with expert, classically trained chefs last in the Rose City, and those that do often struggle.
Yet Madre's, with its incongruous, hearty fare, has not only attracted Lopez fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the star, or at least her ex-husband; it has clearly won over some of Pasadena's old-money folks. (We saw ladies lunching, once even in period costume, and also encountered a few older gents, with their impeccable sense of entitlement.) The very incongruities — pricey Shabby Chicness, Grandma's humble cooking and pop-star charisma — may, this time, make a winner.
897 Granite Drive, Pasadena; (626) 744-0900. Lunch Tues.Sun. 11 a.m.3 p.m., dinner Tues.Sun. 510 p.m. Entrées $10$30. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.