The closing of the Pasadena Playhouse must have been a blow to the new Elements Kitchen right next door. Chef-owner Onil Chibás had to have been counting on business from theatergoers as part of his business plan. But shortly after the renovations were completed and the restaurant moved in, boom: The historic playhouse, named California's official state theater in 1937, shut down because of budget difficulties.
The good news is that, despite the February shuttering, Pasadena has found and embraced this charming addition to Chibás' culinary business, which also includes Elements Café on Fair Oaks and a catering division.
Other restaurants have foundered at this address, but somehow I think this one is going to make it. For one thing, the space looks better than it ever has. It's more comfortable too. And the food is not only fresh and delicious, it's something different for the neighborhood.
The design features a handsome open kitchen separated from the dining room by etched glass panels. A botanical theme runs throughout — on those panels and in the print of stylized leaves that covers the banquettes, and the art on the walls. Arched windows look onto the Spanish tiled fountain in the playhouse courtyard.
Servers take pains to explain the idiosyncratic menu concept. Dishes aren't listed by courses but by element or ingredient. It's a bit confusing at first, mostly because of the layout. Appetizers and main courses in each ingredient category are separated by a stylized sprig of herb. Yet some categories, tomatoes and cod, for example, include only appetizers or main courses.
Color blocking first and main courses to identify them might be a help. It's a bit like playing "Where's Waldo?" to find the Farmers Market Salad, which is listed under "squash," because the chef embellishes the fresh lively greens with squash — two ways, actually, first as a tempura-fried squash blossom stuffed with ricotta and kabocha squash and also as diced candied squash. It makes an otherwise ordinary salad stand out.
Foie gras gets a crazy and delightful presentation as PF&J — a bowl of gritty, slightly sweet pistachio butter, seared foie gras, jellied muscat and little rounds of brioche toast to make your sandwich. The combination of flavors and textures all in one bite is heady stuff.
While L.A.'s Kogi truck made kimchi tacos the darling of the streets, Elements Kitchen's version is terrific in its own way, made with its own cornmeal sesame tortillas filled with thin slices of seared beef and housemade kimchi.
Turning on a dime, the kitchen goes country American with crispy fried chicken livers on Anson Mills grits in a mahogany onion gravy. This one is a surefire winner, the livers rich and rosy on the inside and beautifully crunchy on the outside. Pairing them with creamy grits is inspired.
Dishes with more self-conscious chef-y touches can be hit or miss. Tomato tartare mimics steak tartare with a flat patty of diced tomatoes seasoned with Worcestershire, black pepper and salt, with a circle of yellow tomato on top standing in for an egg yolk. And it comes with handmade celery seed crackers in irregular shards. (All of the breads are made in-house). This, I like. But the trompe l'oeil is less effective in "steak & eggs" — sliced, seared rare tuna with an "egg" of softly whipped cream topped with yellow Masago caviar. It's photo-ready, but the cream doesn't really work with the tuna. And the pretty spinach blinis the size of a silver-dollar are too small for the tuna slices.
Look around the room. Everyone is hunkered down at his or her table, deep in conversation. At Elements Kitchen, it's all about eating and drinking, and spending time with friends. The restaurant has a familial feel, with friends of the chefs' and cooks' dropping by for dinner and Chibás taking the time to say hello to all the guests.
Servers are confident and at ease. And the service itself is excellent. Everyone can answer questions about the dishes and knows the wines well enough to make sensible suggestions. And if other servers notice something needs doing at a table, even if it belongs to another waiter, they'll take care of it. That's teamwork.
Our server one night highly recommended the chicken criollo. "It's the chef's mother's recipe," she said, referring to chef de cuisine Alberto Morales, who is from Bolivia and was in the same class as Chibás at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. At $16, it's the best bargain on the menu, tender chicken stewed with finely sliced onions and halved fingerling potatoes in a criollo sauce of tomato and onion charged with garlic and cumin. It's a real country dish with flavors cooked in as it simmers. Duck breast is good too, sliced and fanned out on the plate in a tangy tamarind ginger sauce.
A pork porterhouse special is a great cut of meat that comes with braised red and green cabbage and a tart baked apple. Quite a delicious plate of food, and like the chicken criollo, one that shines more than the more elaborate dishes. Another enjoyable dish is braised wagyu beef cheeks with sautéed trumpet mushrooms and supple porcini-flavored fettuccine in a Zinfandel reduction.
But my favorite dish may be the Vietnamese steamed sablefish with shiitake mushrooms, served in a light pho broth in a deep oval bowl. The fish has a remarkable purity of flavor. Garnish the dish to taste with fragrant Thai basil and cilantro, wedges of lime, sliced green chiles and a crimson chile paste.
A few things are disappointing, such as a miniature oxtail stew in a tough tart crust that's so oversized it makes the filling look as if it's shrunk like a sweater in too hot water. Duck confit egg rolls are soggy and dull, and it was hard to get past more than a bite or two of the monkfish in a thick brown curry sauce.
Presentation is sometimes awkward. That monkfish curry is served in a plate with two deep depressions that resembles a feeding trough. And what about the kimchi tacos served on black napkins bundled around some kind of stand? Why not just put them on a plate?
Wine service is very good, though, and the kitchen has invested in good glasses. Chris Meeske of Mission Wines in South Pasadena did the wine list, which is full of interesting bottles from around the world at prices in line with the food.
Cheeses are not just the same ones you see everywhere. They're nicely described too. Even better, they're not straight from the fridge but at room temperature. And they come with toast and a marmalade of thinly sliced kumquats, terrific accompaniments. It's a lovely way to finish off a bottle of red, or even white.
For dessert, go with the ice cream, especially the salted caramel ice cream scribbled with a burnt sugar caramel sauce and chopped toasted nuts. Or try the subtle milk and honey ice cream with a fragrant lime granita strewn around the base of the scoop.
Chocolate fanatics should order the white chocolate and coffee mousse covered in a dark chocolate glaze and served with a mound of softly whipped cream and a milk chocolate ganache; it's an incredibly complex dessert for $8.
Chibás and Morales and their staff are putting heart and soul into Elements Kitchen, offering the neighborhood a real place to gather for drinks (Wednesdays the bar features "Sketches," little plates for $5 each), dinner and the occasional lunch.
Elements Kitchen is definitely a step up for Chibás, a former animator who graduated from cooking school four years ago. Putting his schooling to good use, he makes his own breads, desserts and pretty much everything else, including the kimchi on the tacos.
If he'd just leave the self-conscious chefly tricks behind and trust his instincts for cooking delicious, soulful food, Elements Kitchen could inch up on the best restaurants in town.