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Dining in the Great Outdoors

June 07, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Isn't it ironic? In paris, where winters can be brutally cold, people bundled in overcoats will brave the elements just to enjoy a coffee or an aperitif at an outdoor cafe. But here, where the weather is balmy enough to eat outside virtually every night of the year (with the aid of strategically placed heat lamps in winter), alfresco dining still seems like an eccentric novelty. Granted, more Southern California restaurants are sneaking a few tables onto their sidewalks, but not many feature gardens or outdoor areas grand enough to dine comfortably and in style.

Even fewer are like Nick's, the new South Pasadena restaurant that bears the peculiar distinction of being entirely outdoors. (The kitchen is housed in the one small building on the property.) With imagination and moxie, chef-owner Nick Coe has transformed a former parking lot for garbage trucks into a savvy neighborhood restaurant.

At the entrance, which is flanked by potted bay laurels and nasturtiums, a hostess stands vigilant. The front dining area is a small terrace covered by a canvas canopy and gently perfumed with boxes of scented geraniums. Market umbrellas shade the main dining room, with its fountain and four leafy sycamore trees. Vines are just beginning to climb a brick wall next door; on the tables, tiny terra-cotta pots are planted with button-size yellow-and-white sweet Williams. The chairs may be molded green plastic, but then the decorating budget here was only a fraction of Twin Palms', the much grander Pasadena restaurant housed under a tent.

The first time I eat at Nick's, I happen to arrive before my guests. Seated at a quiet table in the back, I look over the smart wine list on which every wine is also available by the glass. Sipping a glass of crisp, minerally Chablis, I shrug off the day's tensions. My friends soon show up and we delve into the night's menu, spending two hours relaxing at the table over what turns out to be a surprisingly good meal.

Coe's salads are pretty and delicious, judiciously dressed with distinctive, beautifully balanced vinaigrettes. A circle of whole endive leaves is strewn with Roquefort and walnuts. A bright tropical salad of smoky grilled shrimp, ripe avocado and papaya comes enlivened with cilantro and lime juice. Seared scallops tossed with oyster and chanterelle mushrooms, spinach, butter lettuce and pine nuts is another wonderful medley of flavors.

The graceful risotto of sweet onions, asparagus and morels delicately accented with lacy chervil would be perfect if Coe would go easier on the Parmesan. And a special ravioli, filled with ricotta and bitter Italian greens and sauced in brown butter and sage, is authentic in spirit but marred by heavy pasta dough and one too many flavors, namely walnuts.

Pollo al mattone, or "pressed chicken," is terrific, an entire half-chicken cooked under a weight so that every bit of it is pressed to the surface of the pan to produce a crisp, golden skin. The dish is as juicy as they come, served with stone-ground polenta and a delectable garlic confit. Skirt steak is a big hit at our table, too. Grilled rare and served sliced, it's a tasty cut of beef that's often ignored in favor of blander, more tender cuts such as filet mignon. It comes with a rich potato gratin and a perky salad of herbs. The massive braised lamb shank is a good wine dish, served with postage-stamp-size raviolini and wild mushrooms in a tomato-tinged braising juice.

Come dessert, we swoon over pastry chef David Berg's chocolate brioche bread pudding for two. It's so dark that it's almost black, topped with a dollop of softly whipped cream. Berg is on to something with his roasted pineapple. Roasting seems to concentrate the fruit's flavor, especially when played against a caramel sauce and coconut gelato. (Sometimes, though, the pineapple is served so warm that the gelato has practically melted away and the caramel sauce is more like caramel soup.)

Coe was chef at Pedals Cafe at Santa Monica's Shutters on the Beach Hotel for several years, but his food is nothing like hotel food. (Before that and well before the restaurant came to figure in a notorious murder case, he worked at the now-defunct Mezzaluna in Brentwood.) Coe's cooking is pure California, closer to the Alice Waters school than that of L.A.'s more flamboyant Wolfgang Puck and his followers. It's fresh seasonal cooking based on good products, understated in its simplicity and appealing combinations of flavors. For once, here's a young chef who does more than just talk the talk. He delivers sophisticated food that's well-thought-out and well-executed.

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