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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Baskin's a Small Niche of Armenia

February 09, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Baskin's Bistro is a new, pleasant Middle Eastern cafe just off the beaten track in Old Town Pasadena. On the corner of Arroyo Parkway and Union Street, Baskin's has replaced Lucky Baldwin's in a pretty storefront location with glorious plate-glass windows facing the Pasadena Hardware store.

The single inside wall has been built up with architectonic planes and niches, the surfaces rubbed orange, yellow, pale green, a bright, if garish allusion to ancient Eastern cities at sunrise. Water trickles down a sheet of corrugated copper. Yellow silk flowers and turquoise napkins add spots of color. Otherwise, the place is spare and fresh-looking, if a tad chilly.

Baskin's is a small enterprise; one dedicated chef and his small, earnest staff. On my first visit, the one waiter had called in sick, and the chef was doing it all--taking orders and cooking all the food. That night, the bulgur was burnt, the roasted quail too rare and we never did get our soup or salad. But there was enough spirit in the food as it was to inspire more visits.

*

Self-described as "a unique Middle Eastern and healthy cuisine," the menu at Baskin's offers almost 50 familiar Armenian dishes interspersed with the occasional pop favorite--fried calamari and a chicken salad, for example. There's a good range here: Two can stop in for soup and a sandwich (served until 5 p.m.) and spend well under $20. Or, they could order a multi-course meal, hot and cold appetizers, salads, entree, etc., and run up a moderately hefty bill.

Everyone is greeted with a basket of warm lavash and a friendly plate of green and black olives, pickles, feta cheese and hot-pink planks of pickled turnip.

I would be perfectly happy assembling an entire meal here from appetizers. Grape leaves, stuffed with rice and vegetables, have an alluring, rich crunch from walnuts. Cooked artichoke hearts, listed under cold appetizers, are actually served warm, sprinkled with parsley and fragrant with lemon and olive oil; they're delicious. Like all good tabboulehs, Baskin's version is juicy with lemon and mostly parsley, with a scattering of fine bulgur thrown in for texture.

Lemon also enlivens a satisfying fool: warm, meaty fava beans laced with garlic and shreds of raw onion to be scooped up with warm flat breads. I wasn't thrilled with the boereg, or cheese pies: Deep-frying seemed to toughen the phyllo dough. The hot kibbeh, though, little deep-fried footballs of bulgur and ground beef, are terrific, especially with a spattering of fresh lemon juice.

Sandwich fillings come rolled in pita bread, slathered with a rich tahini sauce; the falafel is earthy, flavorful. And I loved the fried sujuk, an Armenian sausage that tastes like an inspired cross between pepperoni and chorizo.

All entrees and sandwiches come with a choice of soup or salad. The salad, a heap of fresh romaine lettuce and some chopped tomato and cucumber, is just right. The soup is lentil, not a bit thick, just good, chewy, slightly nutty legumes in a light broth designed not to ruin your appetite.

*

Entrees are disappointing in that the chef is so obviously trying to cut corners. Lamb chops have a good flavor--they're grilled and served with both an intense, smoky tomato sauce and a buttery garlic sauce--but they're badly trimmed and very fatty, which you can't see for all the char and sauces. Pork chops also seem small and thin, although again, the flavor's good. (If the chef is this good with budget cuts of meat, think of what he could do with better quality cuts.) The quail, as I said, were too rare the night I ordered them, but the marinade was tasty, and the parts that were more cooked were quite appealing. Again, a plate of spicy shrimp is meager, the shrimp small in size and number.

To make up for the mistakes that plagued our first visit, when the chef was cook, waiter and maitre d' all at once, he sent us home with a box of desserts: a shrewd move. While the baklava was sweet, nutty, unremarkable, there were also two sesame-encrusted pistachio cookies that were so charming, they made up for any missing soup.

Put Baskin's on your list for lunch or dinner sometime, but don't everyone run there all at once: It's too new, too young, to withstand a crush.

* Baskin's Bistro, 45 N. Arroyo Parkway, Old Pasadena, (818) 405-9905. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$47.

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