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Finally, a chef to match

THE REVIEW

When it opened two years ago, Halie had style but little substance. Now with chef Claud Beltran, it is gaining a following for its food.

April 09, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The Cheesewright Building on Green Street in Pasadena fascinates architecture buffs. Built in 1929, the handsome red brick structure once housed a U.S. Navy office where Einstein worked on various projects.

Restaurateur Greg Lukasiewicz was intrigued by the mystery and lore of the building, and a few years ago leased it with the idea of turning it into a restaurant. He and his father own Restaurant Devon in Monrovia. Transforming the neglected labyrinthine space was daunting, however. Because he didn't have a lavish budget, he enlisted friends and family to help him sand, scrub and paint. The work took months and, as with most renovations, costs soared. At the end, hiring a top-notch chef no longer was an option.

When Halie first opened, Lukasiewicz tried to compromise with a couple of new graduates from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Though it was fun to see what he had done with the building, dining at Halie sometimes felt as if you had walked in on an improvisation piece about a restaurant performed by amateurs. The food seemed at best a prop. The service was nervous and pretentious.

The good news is that after a number of different cooks, all very young or inexperienced, Lukasiewicz finally has hired a capable professional chef. Claud Beltran worked under Thomas Keller at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles, cooked at Dickenson West (now Derek's) in Pasadena and had his own place, Cayo, next to the Pasadena Playhouse for a couple of years.

Now that this restaurant in search of a chef and this chef in need of a restaurant have connected, Restaurant Halie seems to be finding its groove. The nearly 2-year-old restaurant has become more than just someplace for a drink; it's finally gaining a following for its food.

Four nights a week, Halie hosts a separate wine bar in another part of the building with its own small menu of bistro dishes on Friday and Saturday nights. And on weekends, if you linger late, you may find the bar doing double duty as a disco.

With its high ceilings and deco velvet banquettes, the bar feels like the waiting room in a once-grand train station. Sleek and minimalist, it attracts an eclectic crowd. If you come for lunch or dinner, the host will lead you through the bar, past an improvised wine cellar to the L-shaped main dining room. The deep red walls and ornate mirror give it the look of a Russian boite, but the food is pure California with a French accent.

Beltran has kept his menu small enough that he can change it frequently, which is always a plus. True Californians love salads, and the chef indulges them with a delightful one of feathery frisee and prosciutto fried like bacon in a Dijon mustard-spiked dressing with queso fresco crumbled over the top. It's a lovely variation on frisee with bacon. Another of wilted winter greens strewn with crunchy, pink, pickled shallots in a lyrical hazelnut vinaigrette suits the season perfectly. Another good choice is the salad of yellow beets and cantaloupe cut the size of fat French fries and stacked like logs with Boucheron goat cheese in a citrus dressing perfumed with cardamom oil. The flavors work wonderfully together.

A way with soups

The chef has a nice way with soups too. A smooth orangey soup looks as if it's going to be pumpkin or carrots, but it's not. Its taste is oddly intriguing -- a puree of smoked salmon with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives in the center. It's like liquid lox. Good, but it's a bit of a chore to eat an entire bowl of it. Another night, though, Beltran is serving an elegant tortilla soup. A wide shallow bowl arrives with a neat pile of diced avocado, tomatoes, fresh Mexican cheese and thin strips of crisp tortillas in the center. The waiter then pours over some rich clear chicken stock, and the scent of cilantro wafts from the bowl. Every bite is delicious and different. Now this is exciting.

Lately, foie gras is becoming as ubiquitous on menus as ahi tuna. Here, La Bella Farm foie gras is expertly seared and presented on a slice of pale green Korean melon with a few dots of tangerine reduction sauce that throws the sweet fat of the foie gras into relief.

On an unexpectedly busy weekday night, our waiter comes back to tell us they're already out of shrimp for the Ensenada shrimp cocktail. And they've just sold the last order of duck too. Although we're disappointed, this is not a bad thing. It means the kitchen doesn't overbuy, and everything they do have is probably fresh.

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