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OVER THE TOP : A Mishmash of Ingredients and Techniques Make for Wild and Crazy Food at Parkway Grill

October 30, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Pasadena's foremost practitioner of California cuisine is Parkway Grill, where anything and everything goes, with ingredients and techniques thrown together in one exuberant jumble: sesame chicken salad on baby greens with sake, poached plums, snow peas and miso vinaigrette; tenderloin of pork with honey-lavender-port reduction served with smoked Maui onion and goat cheese dumplings. I read on, fascinated, trying to imagine how these dishes would taste.

When this brash newcomer opened in 1984, it took some persuading to get Pasadena's old guard to try the trendy Spago clone. Ten years later, Parkway Grill is a fixture on the scene, its big, brick-walled dining room filled even on weeknights with businessmen, young couples, local hipsters and the well-heeled.

At night, lights twinkle in the trees out front. Inside, the barn-like space, defined with Corinthian pillars, is decked out in polished brass, earth tones and forest green. The requisite open kitchen is placed stage center, so that the wood-burning pizza oven is the first thing you see when you enter.

Seated in a quiet corner one night, we study the long menu and have just about decided what to order when our waitress begins to recite the specials. As she reels off ingredient after ingredient, I struggle to hold each wacky dish in my mind. "Herb fettuccine tossed in wild mushroom-ginger-chile-garlic-miso sauce, garnished with yellow bell peppers and green beans and topped off with lightly breaded, Japanese spiced, whole deep-fried soft-shelled crab!" Yikes! It sounds so weird, I have to order it. And when it comes, it sort of works--for a once-in-a-lifetime taste sensation. Though it's impossible to detect any of the khaki pasta's touted herbs through the complex, heat-laden sauce, the soft-shell crab is beautifully fried.

Another night, another waiter with a prodigious memory. Here comes herb fettuccine again, this time in a tomato sauce, "sauteed in butter with some Cabernet and topped with Kona crab meat, zucchini and wild mushrooms, garnished with two shiitake mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese. . . ." My friend Maria, in from New York, listens to all this, eyes rolling. She asks him to repeat the pasta. He's letter perfect. "It sounds a little . . . weird," she comments.

"You're more of a basic person then," he says sympathetically. Undaunted, he proceeds to ask a couple of nearby customers what they thought of the special. One nay. One aye. Maria orders the dish--and regrets it. The tomato-Cabernet sauce is too soupy to cling to the pasta; the garnish of shiitake stuffed with gooey goat cheese is truly awful. Another pasta is a horrible, sodden mass of noodles weighed down with brownish Cabernet-chile sauce garnished with a row of overcooked, sweetish shrimp. Inedible.

So many of Parkway Grill's dishes are overwrought, with wildly disparate ingredients in excess, the menu begins to sound like a parody of California cuisine. Do the cooks ever read these descriptions aloud? The irony is that with all that's going on in these dishes, the result is mostly dull. Every so often, though, a dish balances all the competing elements, like the straightforward and good Dungeness crab tostadas topped with rough-cut salsa and guacamole or the more baroque cocoa crepe folded around a nicely cooked lobster filling and served with a rich, well-modulated lobster sauce.

Pizzas are by far the best things on the menu--when not overladen with topping. I like the oval three-section pizza, divided into zones, each with its own discrete topping of just three or four ingredients, such as artichokes, sweet red peppers and mushrooms. The pizza loaded with house-made Italian sausage, red onions and sweet peppers is a good bet, too. But the calzone goes overboard with too many ingredients, all of them overwhelmed by sharp, raspberry-vinegared onions.

Better stick with the simpler-sounding entrees like grilled swordfish with saffron risotto and a relish of olive, roasted pepper and mint or the Sonoma baby lamb with morel mushrooms and--uh-oh-- foie gras Pinot Noir sauce. The chef just can't seem to leave well enough alone, adding one last element that takes a dish well over the top.

Desserts are big, bold and oh-so-sweet. Cobbler isn't cobbler at all, but more of a crisp, excruciatingly overdosed with sugar. I wrestled one night with a gigantic caramel and chocolate tart, really a grown-up candy bar. The tart won.

After dinner at Parkway Grill, another friend, an American who grew up in Paris, shakes his head in bemusement. "This is really wild and crazy California cuisine. My palate doesn't know what to do." Neither does mine.

Parkway Grill, 510 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena; (818) 795-1001. Smoking in bar. Dinner for two, food only, $34-$81. Corkage, $5.

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