Monday, February 18, 2013

Upper Crust

I had not been to Crustacean in Beverly Hills for about four years, but I had always kept in mind the fact that I had at that restaurant one of the best meals of my life. The lobster salad, for which they were famous, was wonderful, An's noodles with garlic was a justifiable favorite, and their seafood, among the freshest and best-prepared I have ever known. So impressed was I that I asked to meet the chef, since I know little about cuisine and admire anyone who masters that - to me - alien art form. She turned out to be a Vietnamese woman in her seventies, who, with her family, owned the restaurant. Far from being haughty or self-important, she was genial and had a ready smile. I congratulated her, and she invited me to come again.

I did, recently, on a special occasion, after my years-long absence. The place was as I remembered it, on a corner of South Santa Monica Boulevard not far from Rodeo Drive. They still had the sinuous aquarium under the floor, which gives you rather the feeling of walking on fish as the hostess leads you to your table. It is interesting to see how many people sidestep to avoid the enormous koi with which the sub-floor is stocked. As we were taken to a table on the mezzanine, I was looking forward to a repetition of my last memorable meal.

It was not to be.

The place has declined in quality, I am afraid. The lobster salad, which had been marvelous, was now, as my companion said, "interesting." It was true. The greens were slack, the dressing rather conventional, and the lobster meat somewhat haphazard and badly presented. An's garlic noodles were as I recalled them, zesty and plentiful, but the snapper I ordered was dry, flavorless, and, frankly not entirely fresh. Crustacean was crowded that night, but, nonetheless, I found the service slow, and at one point the waiter asked whether someone else had taken my order. Clearly, he had not.

Now, let me be clear: The meal was far above the average, and the ambiance is lively and tasteful, but this was not the Crustacean I had enjoyed four years before. Perhaps it is under new management - I didn't ask - or perhaps it is simply not possible to maintain so high a standard over so many years. However, whereas on my previous visit, I would have rated it in the high nineties (out of 100), it has in my estimation, slipped to the high eighties.

While I am on the subject of restaurants, I suppose I should mention some of my favorites in the LA-Pasadena area. Perhaps my favorite of all is Restaurant Shiro, in South Pasadena, which I have been patronizing since it opened twenty-five years ago. It has maintained a very high standard over that time, and if you are looking for truly wonderful seafood, I think you would do better to try Shiro than Crustacean. It is smaller, more intimate, the staff is friendly, the service is always expert and attentive, and the prices, while not meager, are still relatively affordable given the quality of the cuisine. I rate Shiro in the low nineties.

The Parkway Grille is, justifiably, rated Pasadena's best restaurant, year after year. The cuisine is eclectic but fairly conservative, and while it is a bit pricey, it is worth it, particularly for a special occasion. The atmosphere is open and delightful - it is located in a converted glass-blowing factory, which is decorated with brilliant floral designs by, I think, Jacob Maarse - and it boasts its own herb garden, and a lovely open-faced brick oven. There is also a piano bar with very comfortable seating for while you are waiting, or after the meal for conversation and a brandy. Parkway has always been reliable and makes for a relaxing and enjoyable evening, and for me it rates in the high eighties.

Our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant has for many years been La Divina Cucina in Montrose (just north of Glendale). The food is always tasty and well-prepared, and the staff are very cordial; indeed. they have become family friends. Like Shiro, Divina does not advertise, yet the place is usually crowded with a faithful clientele. Mi Pace in Old Town Pasadena is also an Italian favorite; the food is uniformly and reliably delicious, and, though it is usually crowded and noisy, it has the benefit of remaining open till two-am on the weekends, which makes it one of the few quality places in Pasadena to dine after a concert or play. I have known the owner, Armand, for twenty years, and he is always genial, and generous with his time and attention.

I think the best sushi restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley is Yoshida on Huntington Drive in San Marino. The fish is the freshest of any I have found, and there is always a wide and surprising variety. The atmosphere is rather basic, but the place is entirely unpretentious and the prices are very reasonable. Closer to home is Kabuki, which, while not offering as fresh a menu as Yoshida, is nonetheless consistently good and very inexpensive. I also love the staff there.

I offer these observations in the hope that some may find them helpful, but please bear in mind that I am no expert, and that the techniques of fine cuisine remain to me as abstruse and impenetrable as Washington politics or the implications of quantum mechanics. If any of you have suggestions for other places I should try, please let me know.