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Little Old Bistro in Pasadena

July 14, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

I kept trying to explain to a friend who had grown up in Southern California that the City of Roses is no longer a sleepy little suburb. That mobs of people drive there on weekends to stroll through Old Town. That Pasadena averages about as many restaurant openings as West Hollywood. "Pasadena is hip?" my friend asked, unable to believe it. Then I reminded her that the last time she was there, Jan & Dean had just started singing about the "little old lady from Pasadena." I rested my case.

My friend's idea of a Pasadena restaurant is no doubt something like The Chronicle, the antique-furnished "Continental" stalwart that closed early this year (to be reborn soon as Joachim Splichal's Pinot at the Chronicle). I'm sure a place like Bistro 45 never crossed her mind. Part of the early '90s wave of restaurants to open in Pasadena, it introduced the city to state-of-the-art California-French bistro cooking. But while Bistro 45 has never indulged in the excesses of Parkway Grill, where a dozen ingredients compete for your attention in almost every dish, it is beginning to feel a little dated.

Near the South Lake district, the restaurant is set in a one-story Art Deco structure painted in shades of green, with a garden of fragrant lavender at its feet. Just beyond the curved bar are two dining rooms with hardwood floors and tables and chairs swathed in white. To one side is the entrance to the patio, where you can dine under open sky or a formal garden tent.

Bistro--at least in France, where the term originated--connotes a casual neighborhood restaurant that serves simple, robust food. You'd think a 5-year-old bistro would have the genre down pat, but simple is not a word anyone in this kitchen understands. With few exceptions, the food here is too sweet, too heavily sauced, too tricked up to qualify as bistro fare.

And boy, does Bistro 45 have pretensions. The waiters treat you as if this is the first serious restaurant you've ever ventured into. One night, after we've had more than ample time to look over the menu, our server launches into a recitation of what seems like 10 dishes, each with complicated strings of ingredients and cooking procedures, droning on about not only the soup du jour, but the bistro fish du jour, the tart du jour, the creme brlee du jour and the ravioli du chef. "Is that the menu? Or the specials?" one irritated guest interrupts. "They are the additions to the menu this evening," the server replies coolly. "You mean the specials?" the guest asks. The snooty response: "We choose to call them 'additions to the menu.' "

Another night, when I order a wine, the waiter asks if I can supply him with the wine's bin number. With such a wonderful wine list, the waiters should be able to refer to the wines by name, not number. And when I order a young California Mourvedre, the bottle is whisked away and decanted. I would have preferred being consulted first.

Service aside, you can find some real treasures on the wine list. A friend who had just visited the vineyards of Australia was floored to discover a rare bottle of Australian wine that he'd brought back with him: the 1991 Henschke "Hill of Grace," a Shiraz (Syrah) from the Barossa range. (And it was priced lower than what he'd paid in Australia!)

I wish Bistro 45's food were as pleasant a surprise. Over the several meals I've had here, the menu has never quite lived up to the restaurant's considerable pretensions. A pairing of tuna and salmon tartare is served with beautiful pale toasts; too bad the salmon tartare is so stringy and someone has piled the creme fra 5/8che (really whipped cream) on top. Cream and raw fish is not a combination made in heaven. Grilled Portobello mushroom would be delicious with tiger prawns and a cumin sauce if the mushroom cap weren't dried out and leathery. Dense lamb ravioli are buried under a sour tomato sauce. And the delicious crispy sweetbreads are overwhelmed by a sauce laced with stinging

amounts of raw garlic.

The kitchen does a creditable job with fish, however. Among the best is pan-roasted salmon, garnished with confit of leeks but presented in soupy red wine sauce. We all would be happy with the special of crispy roasted whitefish with mashed potatoes and snap peas: no affectations, just good cooking.

There are also a few pleasant but unexciting meat dishes: medallions of veal scattered with a wizened dice of apples but with zero taste of the touted Calvados in the sauce, and lavender-dusted pork tenderloin in a strangely dark "apricot" sauce. The best is the pan-roasted beef tenderloin with a parsnip puree and a thin, brown sauce garnished with mushrooms. Lunch offers a wonderful rare grilled lamb sandwich with Texas sweet onions and rouille.

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