Cut to now. Pasadena, especially Old Town, has seemingly turned into a chain restaurant mecca, wait, the “high-end chain restaurant mecca” is more like it. Cheesecake Factory? Check. Il Fornaio? Check. Louise’s? Check. Houston’s? Check. Toss in a few strange fusion places like Thaitalian (wait, they went out of biz) and sushi-for-the-masses like Afloat Sushi (still in biz) and you have the odd, uninspiring food scene in Pasadena, save for a few gems like Vertical Wine Bistro, Parkway Grill (which has had it’s share of ups and downs) and Arroyo Chop House. Then Bar Celona came along………well, more like Chef Josef Centeno came to Bar Celona.
Chef Centeno gained popularity while at Opus Restaurant and has brought new life to Bar Celona. I’d been there before his arrival and it was good, but now it is really special- I mean it’s food that hasn’t been available in Pasadena before, in my opnion. It’s SO NICE to go to my beloved neighborhood and sit down for plate after plate of inventive, fresh, creative and well prepared food such as the offerings of Chef Centeno and Bar Celona.
Last week I was invited to dine at Bar Celona to celebrate their five year anniversary and their annual “Running of the Bulls” celebration. I’d been to Bar Celona a few times in the past and had mostly good experiences there, so I was excited to go. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that my meal was comp’d, but since I’d had many of these dishes before I can tell you that the freeness of the food didn’t change the flavor, ha. Now, onto the food, and there was a lot of it, my friends:
An amuse of crisp fried sardines with honey water. Sounds strange, tastes salty and sweet and then, it’s gone cos you popped it in your mouth.
Oyster & cremini mushrooms- I’m a big fan of mushrooms, garlic and wine, and this was all three with a dash of cream. What’s not to like?
Wild arugula with baby tomatoes, hazelnuts, roasted garlic vinaigrette- again, a combination of a few of my favorite things- peppery arugula with crunchy roasted nuts:
Chard and goat cheese croquetas: My favorite of the evening, but as you know from many previous posts, croquetas (korokke in Japanese) are in my “Top Five” of favorite foods. These were perfect- golden, hot and crisp on the outside, tender with a slight tang from the goat cheese on the inside. I mean, just look at them. They’re nuggets of golden goodness and a great match for the albariño I was drinking
4 oz pork shoulder conserva: potted meats/fishes seem to be everywhere these days, from Barbrix (except they don’t serve it in a pot…boo!) and Palate (the potted lamb is truly outstanding) and this one was rich, meaty and again, perfect for wine. We barely made a dent in it so they offered to let me take it home…..then I promptly forgot it at the restaurant. Imagine all of the fantastic sandwiches (the conserva on rye bread w/ pickled red onions, cornichons, and dijon mustard!!!) missing from my life now that I left that pork conserva behind……I pay for my mistakes. Damn me!
Warm octopus salad, white nectarine, herbs, smoked paprika- normally I don’t really love savory food with fruit in it, but this worked out so well- it also had hearts of palm in it which added a nice contrast in texture to the tender octopus. I wonder what cooking method Chef Centeno uses to get his octopus so tender? I’ve heard Italians put wine corks in their poaching liquid, Japanese put dried adzuki beans in it but beat the raw octopus with a daikon radish before poaching………what’s your method?
Quail stuffed with tart cherries, apricots, chorizo, roasted figs: you’re like, “uh, aren’t you the girl who said she doesn’t like savory food with fruit in it?” Yeah, that’s me, so what’s this dish containing – count ‘em- THREE different fruits in it doing on my table? Well, to be honest, it was recommended, and I’m glad it was- there’s nothing like spicy Spanish chorizo to offset the sweetness of fruit, and quail is one of my favorite birds. S declared this dish his favorite of the night.
And, finally……..drum roll please…………Crispy pork belly, brussels sprouts, fried egg, salbixtada (a sauce made from almonds, tomatoes, garlic). This is a dish that would have Anthony Bourdain rolling his eyes into the back of his head in ecstacy. Several slices of crisp, fatty pork belly on a bed of fragrant, tender lentils drowned in the runny yolk of a soft poached egg. It reminded me of my friend D who is a fan of all things pork fat and drippy egg.
After we were done eating, we rolled ourselves into the other rooms of the expansive restaurant to check out the “Running of the Bulls” party, complete with mechanical bull set up for daring patrons! S and I didn’t think it was a great idea to participate after gorging ourselves on 60% of the menu and hey- I watch “Wipeout” and know what happens to people who partake in those kinds of activites….it ain’t purty. Bar Celona was also promoting their “all you can eat paella” which happens every Sunday this summer and had a paella station set up on the back patio, along with tables of different sample cocktails for people to try. It was kind of like wine tasting- you sip a little here, you sip a little there, then a little while later you realize, oops, I’m sorta drunk! Although the two bar areas and back patio were fun, the main restaurant dining room is much more my speed, with exposed brick walls and an open kitchen.
I’m happy that Bar Celona has become a true food lover’s destination with the Centeno menu and hope it continues to showcase fresh, local ingredients prepared in such creative ways. In a land of chain restaurants, it’s nice to know that there is a place to get some really well prepared dishes and have a reason to revisit my old stomping grounds often.
46 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA