If you're mourning the closure of the Pasadena Playhouse, take solace in the fact that there is still a good reason for you to keep visiting it: a new restaurant called Elements Kitchen.
Open for only a couple of weeks, Elements is a sophisticated restaurant with a grown-up design scheme that is tucked into the side of the historic Spanish colonial building occupied by the Playhouse. The restaurant is the joint effort of executive chef Onil Chibás and chef de cuisine Alberto Morales, who also run Pasadena's Elements Catering and Elements Café.
With Elements Kitchen, they have stepped squarely into the world of fine dining. And they've done it with creativity and verve.
Chibás describes the menu as New American, adding that, for him, that term translates to international flavor. "When I think of America I think of the melting pot," says Chibás, who is of Cuban descent. "These are all flavors and foods and cultures that I'm excited about."
To that end you'll find Vietnamese steamed sablefish in a pho broth with mushrooms, fresh mint and cilantro; marinated flank steak tacos with homemade kimchi; crispy fried chicken livers with onion gravy; and kabocha squash and miso risotto with edamame and marinated tofu.
The star of the menu may be the braised Wagyu beef cheeks with homemade porcini fettuccine in a delicate Zinfandel sauce. The meat is so tender it almost melts in your mouth. It's a warm, hearty dish that comforts on a chilly night. Try it after the beefsteak tomato tartare.
Chibás and Morales enjoy deconstructing traditional dishes and rebuilding them with unusual ingredients, and that's what they've done with the tomato tartare. They've managed to keep the tomatoes from becoming liquid although they are finely minced, and they've flavored the mixture with horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and celery seed, and topped it with a faux egg made from yellow tomatoes and a touch of cream. It's a clever creation that bursts with freshness.
The main dining room of Elements is large and airy with windows looking out onto the Playhouse's attractive courtyard. There is also a front bar and lounge (beer and wine is served now, but a full liquor license is coming), and a spacious open kitchen flanked by an oblong chef's tasting table.
Chibás, who has an easygoing charm, likes to come out and meet his guests, and the staff takes its cues from him. Service is knowledgeable and very friendly.
Bread that is baked fresh on the premises is doled out by servers with tongs and keeps coming if you ask. But be careful, because you'll want to save room for dessert. The macadamia brulée with coconut cream on top of bitter cocoa is a nice choice.
The food is rich, but not overly so. For Chibás, cooking is all about balance. "I make no apologies for using butter, and I'm not afraid of salt," he says. "But I love vegetables and there are plenty of those as well."
Where: 37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The bar is open from 4 p.m. to midnight. Closed Mondays.
Price: Appetizers, $7 to $19; entrees, $16 to $30; dessert, $4 to $8.
Contact: (626) 440-0044; www.elementskitchen.com