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Restaurants : IN FIRST GEAR : Just the Place to Lube Your Tuna, Balance Your Baby Lamb and Rotate Your Tiramisu

August 01, 1993|Charles Perry

Outside, the place looks like a battered old brick garage. The little sign reading "Route 66" could easily be advertising a brand of lube oil.

Inside, though, Route 66 is a sort of car nut's art gallery: splashy paintings of impossibly shiny sportsters, sleek old hood ornaments reverently displayed on the room dividers, antique hubcaps used as light sconces, psychedelically painted hoods hung as artworks. Each of the two rooms displays its own antique sports car, and the bar has a couple of big-rig tires mounted on it.

And so on. There's a memorabilia store on the premises, the place advertises a monthly car show, and it is on old Route 66. Sure, there's food; it's brought by waiters in black gas-station-attendant-type uniforms.

This ought to be the epitome of a California restaurant: meals 'n' wheels. Who could care what it serves? We who don't live on feasts for the eyes alone, that's who. Fortunately, Route 66's polish is more than skin-deep, and it serves food of greater seriousness than you'd expect, particularly in the appetizer department.

The best appetizer is chablis-steamed clams. You can get them in marinara sauce, but go for the scallion-and-soy vinaigrette: The clam flavor is cleaner, and the sauce has a quasi-Korean pungency. Salmon makes for a pretty arresting appetizer, with its rolled slices of smoky fish piled with onions and sliced tomatoes on a (pay attention to this) blue-corn waffle. A tiny, sculpted mound of cream cheese, topped with a scattering of golden caviar, completes the moment of culture shock.

Shiitake-mushroom-and-onion soup has an impressive mushroomy broth, packed with chunks of fungi and sweet onion. But it'd be better if the kitchen didn't insist on putting a soggy puff-pastry crust on it. Mushrooms also come as stuffed mushroom caps--huge ones, plumply filed with chicken forcemeat, flavored with bacon, fresh herbs and spices, brown and crisp on top.

The tuna carpaccio, on the other hand, has all the right stuff on top--oregano, cilantro, chopped shallots and roquette (that's arugula to you and me), lemon juice and olive oil--but the effect is vague. Even more lemon juice doesn't help much.

The salads don't measure up to the appetizers. In the drunken chicken salad--rice wine-marinated chicken and mixed greens--the sickly sweetness of its honey-and-mustard dressing is unwisely underscored by a bunch of tangerine sections strewn on the plate. You wouldn't expect namby-pamby green salads in a rough old brick building full of aggressive car paintings, but that's what you get--a mild-mannered Caesar and a mixed green salad with a painfully polite herb ranch dressing.

A couple of entrees hang to the bland side, too. The butterflied game hen in faint "chili spices" and the baked chicken breast with its spinach-and-ricotta filling, to name two. Both entrees actually pale beside their accompanying starch--the game hen's curry rice and the chicken breast's green fettuccine in cream-leek sauce.

The horseradish sauce that comes with the rib-eye steak will not satisfy real horseradish lovers, either, and some people will not like the vegetables--likely to be carrots, squash, asparagus and green beans--that come with most entrees, because they are undercooked; you can hear your fellow diners crunching.

But if some entrees have their troubles, others are irresistible: filet of ahi tuna, with a bit of mushroom-infused sauce and a mound of tender orzo pasta. Soft-shell crab, which comes with curry couscous and a great black bean sauce that's a puree of the American sort of black bean, not a Chinese black bean sauce. The rack of baby lamb in its herb-and-mustard sauce, although the best part is the perfectly cooked chunks of new potato.

The filet mignon, like the rib-eye, comes with a double-baked stuffed potato flavored with cheese and bacon. But it's the shiitake mushroom topping with its Cabernet sauce that makes the filet.

You might not expect vegetarian entrees from a restaurant full of meat and automania, but it does have a limited selection. And they are decent: angel-hair pasta with tomato, basil, Kalamata olives and capers, and eggplant-cheese lasagna with eggplant slices in place of pasta. Of course, eggplant is slightly bitter and nowhere near as tender as pasta, but at least this isn't just a perfunctory vegetarian offering.

The desserts are nearly all pastries and clearly not made on the premises: Grand Marnier cake, tiramisu, a fruit tart, a pecan pie with unannounced macadamias and chocolate. The rich chocolate cake is positively grainy with bitter chocolate. And the "napoleon" is ghastly, with overdone and apparently unbuttered puff pastry reminiscent of a tough graham cracker and filled with a nondescript mousse.

There are a lot of gimmicky restaurants around--restaurants in clothing stores, restaurants full of rock 'n' roll paraphernalia. Route 66 is a cut above them, and it's a place where you can actually get your kicks.

Route 66, 425 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (818) 793- 8462. Dinner served Tuesday through Sunday; lunch Monday through Friday; brunch on weekends. Full bar. Parking lot in rear. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $33-$62.

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