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Style / Restaurants : Stealing the Show

May 12, 1996|S. Irene Virbila

In the old les arts space on Raymond Street, just a block from the Colorado Boulevard crowds, Spencers feels like a long-running Broadway play that's been moved to a small Pasadena theater. Everyone's doing his part to create the illusion of a grand "continental" restaurant in the spare confines of a former bistro. On a recent Saturday night, Domenick Medina, in chef's whites and pleated toque, plays the lead, greeting faithful fans, asking after their families, handing out menus. His son, Domenick Jr., has a supporting role in the kitchen, while other staffers from the Chronicle, that late, great Pasadena institution, unfurl napkins over laps, pour Chardonnay and Cabernet, and serve pretty smoked chicken and pear salads, French onion soup and steaks with matre d'hotel butter.

Business tonight warrants opening the back room. Our table isn't ready, but the engaging young maitre d' seats us at the small bar and hurries off to find out how long our wait will be. Several parties have to make an 8:30 curtain, he confides. Minutes later, Chef Medina himself is at my elbow, ready to lead us to our seats. "Do you want to go around the long way," he asks, "or go through the kitchen?" Opting for a glimpse backstage, we follow him through the bright, clamorous kitchen, around a corner, past a tray of dinner rolls set out to rise, to a quiet spot.

Along the way, Medina visits at each table, stopping to ruffle the hair of a pair of small boys. "My grandchildren," he tells me, as if he's known me for years. "They're visiting here from Puerto Rico. We have 36 grandchildren." And pointing to the younger chef unlocking the wine cellar, he says proudly: "That's my son."

Shortly after we settle in, our waiter arrives, rolling a wobbly wooden cart holding the ingredients for Caesar salad for two. In a huge wooden bowl, he mashes garlic and anchovies with two forks, adds a splash of Worcestershire sauce and whisks in a thick emulsion of oil and vinegar. (If you want egg, you have to ask for it.) He tosses chilled Romaine, homemade croutons and grated Parmesan together until each bite is coated with the delicious anchovy dressing. I finish one heaping plate and really wish I had another. It's terrific.

We get Santa Barbara mussels, too, sauteed in white wine and shallots, showered with diced celery and carrot and set down in a swirl of cream. On another night, lobster tail for two is cooked tableside with a knob of butter, garlic and a splash of Chardonnay.

Main courses are variations on old continental warhorses: whitefish encrusted with pistachios; flavorful duck breast in cherry sauce, this one a graceful, slightly sweet-and-sour version curiously garnished with dried cherries and wild rice; mild New York lamb, grilled and sliced; a rather tasteless filet mignon smothered with mushrooms in a heavy, dark Pinot Noir sauce. The mashed potatoes are good and substantial. Fresh sand dabs are disappointingly soggy and tart with lemon juice. Whole braised lamb shank on a cushion of cannellini beans is good, but both meat and beans could use an infusion of fresh herbs. There's an excellent half chicken, marinated and broiled, that tastes as if it just came off the barbecue.

We're about to forgo dessert one night when we notice that cart again, this time with a bottle of kirschwasser on top, which can only signal cherries jubilee. Yes, it's a little hokey, but I love the show. With lights turned down low, the alcohol's blue flame creeps down a thread of orange peel into a saute pan brimming with juicy sour cherries and a squirt of orange juice. Spooned into tall goblets over ice cream, this decidedly dated dessert is a guilty pleasure.

The wine list offers a staid selection of California wines and not particularly distinguished French bottles. Spencers acquired only a portion of the Chronicle's famous cellar, most of which was sold at auction. But the restaurant plans to add older vintages soon (as well as a brick-walled patio for outdoor dining).

As old-fashioned as Spencers is, this is precisely why the Chronicle's old customers have transferred their affections here. And because the Medinas are so welcoming and the service so attentive. In the end, it's a pleasure to dine at this new Pasadena restaurant--whether you were a Chronicle regular or not.



CUISINE: Contintental. AMBIENCE: Gracious dining and attentive service in a bright, spare space. BEST DISHES: Caesar salad, Santa Barbara mussels, half marinated chicken, cherries jubilee. WINE PICK: Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc, 1994, Napa. FACTS: 70 S. Raymond St., Pasadena; (818) 583-8275. Closed Saturday at lunch and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $73. Corkage, $12. Valet parking.

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