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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Traditional Diners Will Love Magpies

August 04, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not everyone wants to go to a spare, noisy, hip cafe for dinner. Not everyone wants fruit salsa on their fish or half a dozen regional cuisines represented on a single plate. Some people want to sit on something upholstered, have a cocktail and eat a good plate of meat and potatoes without having to pay a fortune for the privilege.

Enter Magpies, the new restaurant in the space formerly occupied by the Columbia Bar and Grill and Pappagallo's in Pasadena. Here is a restaurant that sits squarely between Marie Callender's and the Chronicle, a real refuge for the more traditional diner who may feel besieged by recent food trends.

Magpies' decor is as cozy and busy as your wealthy aunt's chintz-filled parlor: Chandeliers and polka dots, bold florals and whitened wood exude a homey, faintly Colonial air. The ubiquitous, inoffensive Gipsy Kings swell on the sound system. The patio, with its trickling fountain and tiny lights, is tempting but bear in mind that exiled smokers have taken over most of the outside eating areas in town. (An outside smoke-free section would be especially welcome here.)

If you're waiting for a table, have a drink at the bar. The bartender will juice lemons for fresh lemonade or make you his own secret rum concoction called a Key West--and, if he overhears you're in the film industry, he'll ask to send you his resume and head shots. All the young waiters and waitresses seem chosen for their cheeriness. The front desk has its lapses; one night we were forgotten at the bar and an hour passed from the time we walked in until we got something to eat.

Magpies' menu is short and direct: contemporary Americana with a touch of whimsy. A few burgers, a few appetizers, soups and salads, a short list of entrees. There is also a handful of pizzas and pastas just to make everyone happy.

Great grilled corn chowder is light and smoky, and topped with a skin-thin slice of grilled beet that slowly adds color like a deepening sunset. A salad made with hearts of crisp, fresh hearts of romaine is a perfect balm for these wiltingly hot summer days. The chopped salad, however, is mostly raw carrot cubes in a too-sweet dressing.

Crab cakes are undercooked and gummy, but they come with a terrific, assertive beet-pink slaw. An appetizer of skewered and grilled Portobello mushrooms and house-made beef jerky is baffling: These items seem paired by virtue of their visual similarity alone. The jerky is good, though: Not too tough, it has a spicy, condensed meatiness.

The best thing to order here is a classic prime rib special on a Friday night. This is a major hunk of meat, with both fresh-grated horseradish and a horseradish sauce so fresh, hot and irresistible, it made each of us tasters weep in turn. Pork tenderloin, braised and served with very sweet yams and carrots, is so lean it's bland, even dry. Baby back ribs are the biggest disappointment: The meat itself has exactly as much flavor as tap water. It was amazing, actually: absolutely flavorless meat.

The salmon is a pale variety, probably coho; it's overcooked and dry. Chicken pot pie is good enough, but $9.95 for a small oval dish of chicken in gravy with a short crust does seem steep.

A chocolate brioche dessert is not what we expect--brioche sunk in a rich vanilla custard topped with grated chocolate--but it's wonderful. And far better than either an overly sweet Granny Smith crisp or an average peach and blueberry cobbler.

Pasadena Old Town has long been in dire need of more good breakfast spots, so Magpies' brunch amounts to a public service. Oh, the house-made chicken sausage has too many herbs. And I wish my large juice had come in a glass that was not first packed with ice. But the pancakes do taste like gingerbread, johnnycakes made with white corn meal do have an agreeable crunchiness and the smoked salmon scramble doesn't stint on flavor.

* Magpies Restaurant, 42 S. Pasadena Ave., Pasadena . (818) 568-9992 . Open for lunch and dinner daily. Open for breakfast Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$56.

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