Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cafe Verde, Pasadena

Another favorite spot in my Pasadena neighborhood is Cafe Verde, a little shoebox of a place hidden away on Green Street. From the first, the place appealed to me visually. I liked the painterly effect of the green terrace, cheery red walls, the sober and efficient service of waiters in black.

The food too, which could be described as Californian/Latin, is presented with care and flourish. The conscise and well-written menu includes American classics such as tomatoe soup, Cobb salad and Porterhouse steak, but I think the best dishes are those that lean towards Mexico.

First, the soppa de tortilla. This is a wonderfully smoky soup with a tantalizing bite, based on roasted onion, tomatoe and ancho chile. Corn tortillas are broken up into pieces and cooked in the broth, giving it body and a distinctive flavor. A rich earthy red, the soup is garnished with crispy strips of green and black tortilla and a white ribbon of sour cream.

The pasilla chile is the most popular item here and it's easy to see why. A poblano, the broad shouldered pepper with tapering torso, is singed and peeled then stuffed with cilantro, cheese and roasted corn -- a winning combination and perfect foil to the chile's heat. Chunks of grilled chicken and mushrooms are also tucked into the dark green pepper, nestled in a pool of ochre-colored pasilla sauce.

But the most delectable dish, to my mind, is the tostones -- little banana boats carrying morsels of buttery shrimp. Actually they are plantains, ripened to sweetness and fried golden. Compared to dessert bananas their flesh is firm and starchy to taste and it is lovely in the company of succulent shrimp, together smothered in a creamy sauce of squash blossoms.

I also like the contrast of good food in divey surroundings (the slap-dash Pie n'Burger, a third Pasadena favorite, comes to mind) but at Cafe Verde everything is a quiet feast for the eyes.
Cafe Verde 961 Green Street, Pasadena, CA 91006 tel. (626) 356-9811

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

St. Valentine's Day

My 4-year-old daughter is a serious chocoholic (she likes 85% cacao) and I'm constantly on the lookout for high-density chocolate recipes. This one comes from last Wednesday's food section in The New York Times. The recipe is simplicity itself and I liked that you begin the cake in a hot oven and finish it in a cold fridge. The result is a dark disk with a deliciously moist, fudgy center. Cut thin wedges and serve with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

"Azo Family Chocolate Cake"

81/2 ounces (about 2 sticks) unsalted butter
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
5 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
pinch of sea salt

1. Place rack in top third of oven and heat to 400 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Melt together butter and the chocolate in a double boiler.
2. Mix egg yolks and sugar. Add flour. Stir in chocolate mixture. Whisk egg whites and salt until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into the batter just until blended.
3. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove cake from oven and cool for 1 hour. Wrap with foil and refrigerate until firm and cold, at least 2 hours.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Europane Bakery, Pasadena

Three things I miss most about France, predictably, are: bread, chocolate and cheese. Of-course you can find these things in any American supermarket, but I'm talking about chocolate that you buy freshly-made, cheese that is not pre-portioned and saran-wrapped. When it comes to daily bread, having a good and reliable bakery within walking distance is essential to well-being and I was miserable ... until I discovered Europane in our Pasadena neighborhood.

The place is run by the personable Sumi Chang, formerly of Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery. You often see her hopping from table to table, chatting with customers, bringing out plates and clearing them away too. Although local foodies swear by her buttery pear tarts, sticky cinnamon rolls and ginger-studded scones, what I find consistently impressive are her artisanal breads, beautiful crusty loaves that come in five variations: sourdough, multi-grain, olive, rosemary currant and walnut cranberry.

When you order a sandwich you choose the bread. Over the weeks I tried to decide what went best with what: moist chicken salad with rosemary currant, open-faced egg salad on toasted multi-grain etc. until finally I settled on a favorite -- oven-roasted turkey with walnut cranberry, shown above. The composition is simple but thought-out: bread, Dijon mustard, turkey, salt and peppered slice of ripe tomatoe, mixed baby greens, mayonnaise. The tartly sweet cranberry and crunchy walnut works particularly well with the turkey, even if it's not yet Thanksgiving. To me it's the ultimate American sandwich, something you could not get even in France.

Europane Bakery 950 Colorado Blvd. tel. (626) 577-1828