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Beaux Gestes

August 11, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Dickenson West, a new cafe and bistro in Pasadena, isn't exactly trumpeting its presence. There isn't even a sign out front. Tucked in the corner of a mini-mall near where the 110 Freeway becomes Arroyo Seco Parkway, only a few handsome white umbrellas discreetly stenciled with "DW" mark its location. Beyond the dark glass door is the cafe, which opens into a large room and open kitchen. The handful of tables are dressed to the hilt in crisp white and coral linens, with baskets of fluttering white moth orchids and straight-backed chairs covered in striped raw silk. From behind a painted antique folding screen come the sounds of chopping, the whirl of a blender and butter sizzling on the stove. This is no show kitchen: The copper pots hanging in back are clearly used for cooking.

Looking very much his part, a waiter in a long white bistro apron brings out a basket of warm, fragrant bread and a crock of lovely herb butter. This seemingly small detail is telling, like the list of well-priced, interesting wines by the glass. Then I dip my spoon into the pozole. Presented in a pretty Chinese porcelain bowl with matching saucer, the rich soup is red with tomato and chile, chunky with starchy kernels of pozole and shredded chicken breast. It's gutsy and delicious. Chinese smoked duck salad is a frilly, beautifully dressed mound of shredded green and red cabbage, crisp fried won-ton skins and rare slices of smoked duck breast with dried cranberries as a sweet-tart counterpoint.

The grilled steak sandwich is outstanding, thin slices of rare steak, ripe avocado and tomato slathered with handmade cilantro-lime mayonnaise. And the "one very incredible DW burger" on the lunch menu is no hyperbole. A thick, freshly ground, incredibly flavorful beef patty is cooked to true medium-rare and comes on a tender onion bun. You can get it with good cheddar or Gorgonzola as well. The skinny fries, skins-on and fried to a golden crisp, are worth the trip on their own. And for dessert, there's a moist hazelnut chocolate cake and a grown-up lemon bar. The kitchen is making all the right moves.

Attention to detail extends to the service, too, which is courteous and truly thoughtful. You don't get the feeling that the waiters are understudies who have wandered onstage at the last minute. As our waiter tells us, Dickenson West originated last year as a showcase for the catering business of Derek Dickenson and Barbara West, alums of the late Pasadena restaurant La Couronne. But their catering customers kept asking for tables so they could stay and eat lunch, and soon they wanted dinner, too. At first, the cafe was open only two nights a week. Now that the partners have turned the adjoining space into a small bistro, Dickenson West is open four nights a week. The demure little dining room has eight comfortably spaced tables (a private room seats up to 14 people), a polished wood wine bar in the corner and a wine cabinet along the back wall. With a trompe l'oeil mural of the Los Angeles skyline making the room appear larger, it's quiet enough to talk and truly relaxing.

As good as lunch is, it is at dinner that this restaurant really shines. The chef is Claud Beltran, who worked under Thomas Keller at Checkers. Rather than offer a long list of all the usual dishes, he composes a new $32.50 four-course prix fixe menu every two weeks or so that includes a choice of four first courses and four main courses. (The same dishes are available a la carte.)

To start, there are wonderful rolls with a crackling crust and a beautiful crumb. This might be the time to splurge on a bottle of Champagne, too. Dickenson West offers Veuve Clicquot non-vintage brut at $39, about the lowest I've ever seen it. Before the first course, Beltran might send out canapes: a delicate fried wonton of scallops and basil sprinkled with black sesame seeds or a miniature lobster strudel perfumed with shrimp-infused oil. As appetizers, mussels are plump and flavorful, and I can't get enough of the gently spiced curry broth laced with sliced shallots and fragrant herbs. Sweet, meaty shrimp garnish a carrot salad, coiled like spaghetti on the plate and

Drenched in a fresh ginger dressing. Another night, there is a Thai salmon cake with a topknot of basil and mint in a swirl of a curry sauce and a "napoleon" of sliced tomatoes stacked with pesto risotto, which would have been even better with riper, juicier tomatoes.

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