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THE TABLES ARE TURNED : It May Not Be Pub Grub, but When It Comes to Good, Cheap Food, Abiento Is No Cop-Out

August 29, 1993|Charles Perry

Weep for old Monahan's, that cramped, smoky warren of dark booths where Joseph Wambaugh, and many a policeman like him, used to drink, for Monahan's is no more. When the Pasadena landmark was torn down last year, people sold pieces of Monahan's rubble as souvenirs, in the Berlin Wall manner.

In its place stands Abiento, pretty much the antithesis of Monahan's in every way: a well-lighted, spacious, smoke-free, boothless Franco-Italian restaurant with eager young waiters and fast service. The front end of the place has big glass windows, letting wholesome daylight rove freely through the high-ceilinged room. (Monahan's regulars are said to have transferred their troglodytic way of life to the nearby Peppermill restaurant.)

The menu at Abiento changes twice a day, though not radically; you'll find most of the lunchtime dishes still around at dinner--and, surprisingly, at the same prices. It runs mostly to easygoing Mediterranean folk food--calamari and shrimp on salad greens, salami with celery-root salad, pasta with sausage and garlic cream sauce. Whatever you order, whether appetizer or entree, it will probably come with vegetables: say, sweet peppers, yellow squash, fried potato chunks and crunchy green beans.

No big whoop, but nicely done and reasonably priced. And some dishes are out of the ordinary. Very often you can get rillettes, that mild, fatty pork spread that has been called French peanut butter. Abiento makes its own sausages, and they have a salty, savory homemade flavor. You might find an appetizer of duck sausage meat sauteed with pineapple slices or a main course of fresh veal sausages in a bit of brown gravy with onions.

Abiento--a variation of "see you soon" in French--makes a particularly good version of duck confit: almost half a duck, very salty (as it should be) and poached very brown. The pate maison is likely to be made from duck, too, with chunks of duck meat in it.

Eggplant spinach crepes turn out to be spinach and ricotta wrapped in slices of fried eggplant (they're the crepes) and baked in a slightly creamy tomato sauce; they look like three oblong lumps hiding under a pink carpet, but they taste pretty good. Polenta in garlic cream is three disks of grilled polenta, tasting more of corn than of the garlicky sauce.

On the entree list, you might find surprisingly good quail with polenta. The bird is not scrawny and dried out but plumped up with a saffron-flavored stuffing. On one side stand onions and a little saffron sauce mashed with polenta, on the other roasted sliced shallots and sweet red peppers.

A lot of hip chefs scrupulously cook pork tenderloin until just barely done, but it deserves to be well done, as Abiento cooks it. It's likely to come with the same brown gravy as the veal sausage or with the onions stewed very soft.

Pastas tend to be simple-minded things like linguine with basil, tomato and artichoke hearts or angel hair with garlic and chopped clams. The fish dishes are the ultimate in minimalism: slightly overdone halibut with basil or tarragon, lemon and butter; red snapper with nothing but butter.

The dessert choices have the same odd, homey-exotic quality as the rest of the menu. Berries are scattered around with a free hand, much as random vegetables adorn the entree plates. The fruit cobblers have crusts sort of like soggy coffee cake. But two desserts, representing opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, really command attention. The apple pizza looks like pizza--thin crust covered with thin-sliced apples--but the crust is pastry, not bread dough; it's a little like a flat coffee cake, or to be more precise, a Czech kolac. The chocolate cake's name, "I'm Gonna Start My Diet Monday," tells you what to expect here: a veritable black hole of chocolate covered in chocolate syrup. Some people can't finish.

I can understand if the people who used to drink at Monahan's find all this pretty horrifying. Rillettes! Quail with polenta! Apple pizza! This is not pub grub at all! But Abiento is cheery and unpretentious; even better, the prices are very civilized. Stick around, Abiento.

Abiento, 110 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena; (818) 449-4151. Lunch and dinner served Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Lot and street parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.

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