Driving along Green Street toward Old Town Pasadena and Twin Palms, I knew only that the new restaurant counts Cindy and Kevin Costner and Michael Roberts, the genie behind Trumps, as three of the six partners. And that it is big.
The entrance, a gap in the whitewashed wall, leads into an astonishing space, an open-air tent-restaurant as large as a village square. Dozens of white-clothed tables sit beneath the canvas sky, with six, eight, 10 wicker armchairs drawn up around each. Candles gust in the breeze. On this night, strategically spaced heat lamps keep it comfortable enough to eat in the virtual outdoors.
At the center, two century-old majestic palm trees poke through the top of the tent, which retracts in fine weather. Fragrant potted plants and herbs--flowering citrus, rosemary, thyme, mint--are arranged at their feet. Two lively bars bracket either end of the vast space. Waiters rush by bearing bright, glazed platters.
In one corner, chickens, pork loins and rib roasts turn on a spit over glowing hardwood logs. In the kitchen, hearty stews and braiseddishes simmer slowly in a Texas barbecue oven adapted for the purpose. The restaurant seats 375 people, and on a recent Saturday night, the kitchen fed 698 people, 200 of them walk-ins with no reservations.
Twin Palms manages to capture the feeling of village festivals in southern France or Italy, when tables are set up in the square and the whole town turns out to feast on grilled sausage and polenta or a grand aioli. Celebrations where the wine flows freely and the food is simple and abundant. And after, there may be music and dancing.
On my first visit, the maitre d', wearing a topcoat that chilly evening, led us to the back, to a more traditional indoor space converted from an old stable. The two of us had a generous table for four (there are no cramped deuces here). The place was full, yet the service was warm and energetic.
For starters, I ordered the \o7 brandade \f7 appetizer, wonderful salt cod whipped into fluffy mashed potatoes and served with jaunty toasts. When is the last time you've seen a $3 appetizer big enough to serve four? The grand \o7 aioli \f7 is a satisfying platter of grilled vegetables--zucchini, carrots, deep orange squash, onions and boiled waxy potatoes with a crock of ungentrified \o7 aioli.\f7 Both our main courses, thick slices of nicely juicy roasted sage pork and the honey coriander duck, were definitely a deal at $11 and $13.50 respectively, with a nice potato gratin and an array of vegetables.
To its credit, the menu doesn't have great pretensions. The cooking, much of it done on the outdoor rotisserie and grill, is truly rustic. Real food at modest prices.
At Trumps, which closed in 1992, Roberts took his cooking right to the edge with daring combinations of ingredients and techniques. Here, he's gone back to his roots with the kind of straightforward food he learned to cook in France when he was just starting out. Contemporary restaurant fare is based largely on sauteed dishes, preparing bits of this and that to order. At Twin Palms, he's returned to a more 19th-Century idea: roasting joints of meat and simmering dishes slowly to develop flavor, a method that has almost disappeared from restaurant menus. Its very simplicity makes it tricky to pull off. Twin Palms is doing a creditable job much of the time, but it is still a restaurant in progress.
Yes, there is a grilled burger. And there is a pizza, a thin-crusted version topped with sausage, leeks and mushrooms, which makes a fine appetizer. It seems silly, however, to make anchovies optional on the \o7 pissaladiere. \f7 This thick Provencal "pizza" is traditionally topped with onions, olives and anchovies, the latter as essential as bacon to a BLT. The garden vegetable soup is weak in flavor despite the dollop of \o7 pistou\f7 (similar to Italian pesto) stirred in at the last moment. A dense chickpea polenta was not enhanced by a smear of pungent Roquefort. The salad of duck confit with broccoli rabe and wilted escarole sounded irresistible, but the tangle of limp ingredients didn't look appetizing. And, unless I'd read it myself, I would never have recognized the stringy meat as confit, which is one of my favorite things on Earth.
One night the best dish was a special of sturgeon (a fish that actually has some taste) in a lovely orange-saffron sauce. When you order lamb shanks, you get the whole thing, tender as butter and served with flageolet beans. I didn't mind the resistant texture of the beef shank braised in red wine but wished the beef itself had more flavor.
While we savored the round, yeast-raised \o7 babas \f7 and oranges in vanilla syrup and nibbled on a sugar cone and hazelnut ice cream, a reggae band picked up the beat at the bandstand. One by one, the cashier at the bar, waiters, diners lingering over their coffee, were all bobbing to the music. Several couples started dancing.And while we waited for our car, we couldn't resist doing a little bounce ourselves.
Twin Palms has managed to translate the festive feeling of a village square to an urban, Southern California setting. With a high-profile chef at the helm and real people's prices (the valet parking is more expensive than most of the appetizers), it's a new breed of restaurant.
\o7 Twin Palms, 101 W. Green St\f7 .\o7 , Pasadena; (818) 577\f7 - \o7 2567. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner and late night supper\f7 .\o7 Sunday brunch\f7 .\o7 Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $29-$63.\f7