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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Roberts' Urban Rustic, Tommy's Tangy Thai

March 13, 1994|LAURIE OCHOA

Twin Palms celebrates the great California outdoors--not the outdoors of nature and pine trees, but of cabanas and palm trees . . . the sunglass-shaded good life. Walk into this huge space on a weekend evening and you're apt to find yourself in the middle of what seems like a packed poolside party without the pool. A band plays in a tented stage designed to look like a bathhouse; two open-air bars, one at each end of the heated patio, are jammed. On an outdoor rotisserie, chickens slowly rotate; waiters and waitresses hustle through the crowd carrying plates of grilled sausages, huge bowls of bouillabaisse.

The big money behind the place comes from actor Kevin Costner; the big ideas behind the food come from former Trumps chef/owner Michael Roberts.

Bravely, Roberts has decided to put together a menu without any pasta. Instead there are cassoulets, roasted beef shanks, and pissaladiere -style pizza (inspired by the onion-and-anchovy pies of Nice). Where many restaurants get their ideas from the Italian side of the Mediterranean, Roberts looks to Provence. This is Urban Rustic cuisine, the kind of food you'd hope to get from a talented home cook holding an outdoor bash near Arles.

Some of the dishes may be unfamiliar to locals: Crisp rounds of bread scoop up Roberts' take on Provencal-style brandade --the kitchen blends mashed potatoes into the nicely pungent salt cod puree. Salt cod shows up again on the bar menu in crunchy fritters, "acras," served with rouille. There may be no angel hair pasta, and no steak either (though the crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken is good), but Twin Palms is a restaurant trying to show that casual, moderately priced restaurants don't have to be a bore.

* Twin Palms, 101 W. Green St., Pasadena, (818) 577-2567. Pizza, sandwiches and entrees $7-$15.50.

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Meanwhile, a block or two away from the party at Twin Palms, Tommy Tang, one of L.A.'s early Thai food pioneers (and one of the first to make Melrose Avenue a hot restaurant street), has opened a second Southland location. It's interesting how Tang's food has evolved over the years. When he first opened on Melrose, he was doing fairly straightforward Thai cooking (still new to many of his customers then) in a neon-lit, modernistic space. His new brick-walled restaurant has lots of big art and no neon, but the food seems closer to something you might get at, say, Parkway Grill than the usual stuff at Chan Dara: less Thai than Thai-inspired.

There are still some Thai classics--mee krob, pad Thai and chicken sate, for instance. But things like risotto and fettuccine and penne are turned out with spicy Asian flavors. Except for the kaffir lime dipping sauce, Tang's crisp fried oysters wouldn't be out of place in a French restaurant. More than many chefs cooking Pacific Rim cuisine, Tang's advantage is that he knows the cuisine he's interpreting from the inside out.

* Tommy Tang's, 24 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 792-9700. Pasta and entrees $7.50 to $16.25.

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