Can a restaurant that serves pork and beans, a pulled pork sandwich and a Reuben be called a bistro? What, in this day and age, is a bistro, anyway? Snark: a gastropub without much on tap. By that criterion alone, a/k/a is a bistro—only six droughts, though all come from respectable California craft breweries. Then there is the rest of the menu, which has words like “confit” and “tartare” and “charcuterie” on it. Very bistro-like. “Gastrobistro” is probably a bit redundant.
Would my mother call it a bistro, with all its leather and dark wood and house-pickled sauerkraut? My mother, who is something of a stickler for culinary labels, would probably say: “Who cares? Their food is delicious.”
Mothers know best.
A relative newcomer to the city’s food scene, a/k/a occupies a prime piece of real estate in One Colorado Plaza: right next to Gold Class Cinemas, a 4,500-square-foot space that used to house a Gordon Biersch. Now it houses the aforementioned leather and dark wood, a wait staff of comedians, and a menu that, if not exactly novel, is commendable still for its near mastery of the nouveau comfort food formulas: $7 truffle fries, cocoa nibs in the duck confit salad, gruyère on the Reuben, a “no substitutions” burger and so on.
Those cocoa nibs don’t add much, but that doesn’t stop the duck confit salad from being superb. Also excellent: the filet beef tartare (aptly seasoned, on the acid side) with pickled mustard, Dijon and an egg yolk from Monrovia (which cuts rather too much of the acid, mellows it too much); the “foie blond” pate with house gelée and (not enough) brioche; and the “pork and beans” mentioned earlier, a clever name for a dish of braised pork belly served with green beans, carrot purée and apple compote.
Still good but not as good was the roasted beet salad with crispy (fried?) crunchy lotus root, blue cheese and a fennel pollen that I asked be withheld at the request of one of my fellow diners (some people really don’t like fennel). Maybe the pollen makes the dish. We’ll withhold judgment until this can be confirmed. The beets, at least, were everything you could want from a roasted beet.
The low point of the meal was the burger, of “grilled certified Angus” with pepper jack, chef’s aioli, house-cured bacon, pickled jalapeños, fried shallots and… lettuce and tomato? How pedestrian! Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with pedestrians—I like lettuce and tomato on my burgers just fine. But when a burger costs $13, I expect those ingredients to be, for lack of a better word, upmarket—double-secret organic arugula and truffle-dusted campari tomatoes, for example.
Interestingly, despite the Father’s Office-inspired “no substitutions” disclaimer specific to the burger, it is served with all the usual fixings (what would you want to substitute?), including a pouch of ketchup meant, theoretically, for the (quite good) steak fries, but which can be easily applied to the burger, and which, frankly, the burger needs. Because in addition to the above minor quibbles, the burger does have one substantial flaw: It’s too dry. Prosaic tomatoes and transparent posturing can be overlooked, but a dry patty? For all that, though, the burger was still pretty good, just less good than everything else.
Beverage options beyond the six aforesaid drought beers include nine or so bottled beers, a smattering of cocktail “specials” (not among which were the merely average bourbon old-fashioneds we tried), a wine list about which I am equipped to say nothing, and roughly 40 wines by the glass, including a few nice-looking flights, one of which was, in fact, nice: the “Red Badge of Courage,” a three-stage progression of able-bodied reds.
Worth mentioning is that the proprietors, Deborah and Robert Simon, have operated Bistro 45 for the past twenty years and gave the a/k/a concept a go two years ago in St. Helena. Their experience likely accounts, at least partially, for a/k/a’s finesse with recent culinary trends—bordering on clichés—that many other restaurants handle much more clumsily. Their experience, and the skill of executive chef Jonathan Wiener, who did time at the Michelin-starred Etoile at Domaine Chandon in Napa.
Before we close, a quote: “Whether you want this or not, I’m sick of carrying it, so there you are. Enjoy.” So said a busboy, evidently tired of lugging around a water pitcher, to our table. When the shock wore off, he was fifteen feet away. From the safety of this distance, he apologized—“Sorry! I’m the intern.” Somehow—not unlike a/k/a—he pulled off this shtick, which just about anywhere else, or from anybody else, would have been unfathomably irritating. Instead, we all smiled wide.
41 Hugus Alley, Pasadena, 626.564.8111, akabistro.com. L & D daily. Full bar. $$ – $$$