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RESTAURANTS : BIG FOOD IN A SMALL TOWN : At Pasadena's Xiomara, Expect Happy Waiters, Cozy Chic and Stacks of Unusual Food

March 01, 1992|Ruth Reichl

At night, Pasadena's Old Town has the feel of small-town America, the sidewalks scrubbed and neatly rolled up for the evening. On weeknights, as you drive down North Raymond Avenue, you can look through the restaurants' large plate-glass windows at the people gathered around the tables laughing and eating and looking especially cozy against the backdrop of the empty street.

Inside the restaurants, there is also a small-town feeling, quite different from what you find in Los Angeles. The hostesses seem genuinely pleased to see you walk through the door, and a waiter who has served you once is unlikely to forget your face.

"How nice to see you again," said the waiter at Xiomara (pronounced SEE-oh-ma-rah ), handing me a menu. "You were here last week. Wasn't the food great? " He seemed to mean it. In fact, I've rarely been in a restaurant whose staff had as much enthusiasm for the food they serve. They breathe the chef's name with reverence. "Robert does a really good job with that dish," the waiter said when I asked about the foie gras . "I'm sure you'll like it." Above all, he seemed to feel that he was privileged to taste the food cooked by the master. Such a sentiment is apt to be infectious.

The early signs are good. The butter is served icy cold, and the bread snuggled into the napkin in the basket is clearly homemade. There are long, crisp bread sticks shot through with ginger, quite unlike anything served anywhere else.

Even before you've placed your order, it is clear that Xiomara's food is unusual. Watching the dishes go parading past your table is like taking in a display of mini-sculptures--nothing sits glumly on the plate. Food is rolled, stacked or layered, and the waiters seem so charmed by the idiosyncrasies of the dishes that they have a habit of slowing down as they pass the tables, as if they were models walking down the ramp.

Certainly, this restaurant's dishes are not what you'd expect. Consider crab-and-asparagus salad with celery root. If you're imagining a heap of crab-showered greens, you'll be disappointed. This is a fluffy little pile, a froufrou dish that looks a lot like an Easter bonnet, made of crab layered between big, crisp disks of the fried celery root. Dots of curry oil surround the confection, like little flowers on a hat.

House-cured salmon with corn pancakes is equally unexpected. What you get are two elegant cylinders, cut on the diagonal, one artfully balanced atop the other. The salmon has been rolled up in thin corn crepes that taste as if they have been dusted with finely grated, aged goat cheese. The punctuation here is bright red--little drops of pepper oil.

Not every dish pulls off a balancing act--at least not one you can see. Those that don't juggle flavors instead. The most interesting dish on the menu is the terrine of foie gras, which looks pretty ordinary--the most interesting visual elements are the slices of fried lotus root that decorate the dish. But chef Robert Gadsby serves this most French of dishes with a salad no Frenchman would consider making--much less serving with foie gras. It is the all-American pickled pear, the sort of thing you'd find at a county fair. Unlikely as it sounds, the edgy sweetness of the pear turns out to be a perfect foil for the silky smoothness of the liver.

The pasta-potato gnocchi with wild fennel and lamb sausage is equally aggressive, but in another way. This is a hearty, rustic dish, and quite a contrast to the delicate arrangements found on so many of the plates here.

The menu, while descriptive, doesn't actually tell you much about the dishes. Would you know, reading "sea bass wrapped in endive with spicy broth," that it would be the best spa dinner you've ever eaten? The fish comes tied up in little bundles of endive, each one secured with a ribbon of chive. They float in a broth of impressive character. The fish is filled with flavor--and if there are 300 calories in the dish, I'd be surprised.

Rabbit is another unusual presentation. The saddle, served with wild rice, is moist and flavorful, giving this often-timid meat a really forward character.

The food here can be uneven. I've had some disasters, and my favorite dish among the entrees has been retired: It was called veal-shank minestrone, which was slightly misleading. Two big chunks of boneless veal were tied together, set atop a reduced sauce of beans, stock and vegetables and strewn with grated cheese and parsley. At $15.50, it was a lot of food for the money and a very flavorful and satisfying dish.

But there are other things to order here. Peppered tuna, which comes in a stack, is layered with napa cabbage in a gingered soy sauce. Pan-roasted chicken with roasted fennel, also stacked, looks like building blocks for a very hungry child. And scallops come topped with a shower of leeks, looking more like dessert than anything you'd eat for dinner.

What is most surprising is that these dishes are served in a setting that is at the same time sophisticated and cozy. One night, a bunch of firemen came tromping through on an inspection, and nobody seemed to mind. On another night, all diners stopped eating as a ghostly post-Rose Bowl parade glided past the windows. First the whole restaurant went silent to witness the spectacle, then diners started cheering for their favorite floats. Sitting there watching a parade while eating peppered tuna, I felt as if we were tasting big-city life in a small-town setting. And what could be better than that?

Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (818) 796-2520. Open nightly for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch. Full bar. Parking lot across the street (not validated). All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $62-$80.

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