In a tight red sweater, curvy jacket and a loop of pearls, Xiomara Ardolina looks too young to have started her first restaurant in La Canada way back in 1979. She later parlayed the money she made with that first venture into a French bistro in Old Pasadena named … Xiomara, which was Pasadena's leading French restaurant for quite a while.
Even after she split with her chef Patrick Healey (now at the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica), she kept the French theme going for awhile. But when nueva cocina swept into Miami and New York, she eventually switched out the French for her take on the then-hot Latin food movement. On a roll, she branched out with a more casual Cuban cafe (also in Pasadena, but long gone) and eventually opened Xiomara on Melrose in 2003.
Her instincts were absolutely right in securing this space seven years ago on the corner of Melrose and Seward. There's a theater down the street, a gallery too and nearby, post-production facilities and studios that mean a lunch business.
But after seven years of focusing on Cuban food, Xiomara has recently changed the concept, this time to California cuisine, a first for her, and a choice that may be dictated more by the economy (and what more people would probably want to eat) than by any driving passion. The new Xiomara doesn't carry the passion or the sense of discovery of the original, but offers solid, well-priced California fare and attentive service.
Maybe that's why she's hired a chef this time instead of acting as executive chef herself. He's Michael Reed, a graduate of the CIA in New York who has done time at Sona and Osteria Mozza. With Reed in the kitchen, that leaves the energetic Cuban-born restaurateur to run Xiomara's dining room, which she does with aplomb, noticing everyone and everything.
I love sitting up on the mezzanine framed by graceful wrought iron, looking down on the main room with its terra cotta floors and brick walls. Huge arched windows look out onto the street, where a few sidewalk tables are set under an awning. From above, you can see the tables of other diners as a decorative element, their plates and wine glasses arranged on crisp white tablecloths.
The body language of a couple leaning toward or away from each other says everything. The trio of men at the bar has an ease that signals long friendship, while a stiff-backed stranger eats alone. Every few minutes, you can hear the whir of the machine that extracts the fresh sugar cane juice that goes into the mojitos, the best in town. I wish, though, she'd stop serving them in those alarmingly slanted glasses: They make me feel woozy before I've ever taken a sip.
The new menu is both user- and budget-friendly, with hardly a main course jumping the $20 mark, and small plates staying well below $10. That's a good thing, separating Xiomara from pricey special occasion restaurants. As for the food, it's easygoing California cuisine that relies on fresh and seasonal ingredients. Not exactly earth shatteringly original, but all in all well-prepared and welcome in an area with few mid-priced choices.
Even so, Ardolina couldn't be expected to give up everything Cuban. The bread basket still offers rich Cuban-style white bread drenched in butter. It's hard to stop at one bite.
Reed's menu includes some strong starters. Juicy red heirloom tomatoes make an appealing salad with pale sliced hearts of palm and basil. Crinkly, crunchy Little Gem lettuce is tossed with bacon, blue cheese and kalamata olives in an astutely balanced lemon-shallot vinaigrette. A heap of creamy burrata comes not with the usual tomatoes, but with mushrooms a la grecque. An unusual idea, but it works.
Soups are generally good, too. It could be a pumpkin or, the other night, a lovely potato and leek purée garnished with Tuscan cabbage and fried onions. Another good choice is tiger prawns fried in a beer batter so gossamer it's barely there, all the better to taste the garlic aioli and sweet red pepper purée.
Meat-happy carnivores are going to go for the lamb riblets, slow-roasted so they're all crunch with a sticky sweet sauce cooked deep into the meat. Crispy pork belly will appeal too, its richness nicely set off by roasted Jerusalem artichoke and a smoky puréed eggplant.
Mains are more straight-ahead, but thoughtful accompaniments are a bonus. With seared scallops, Reed serves heirloom beans in their cooking juices. The combination somehow makes sense: earth and sea. Moist pan-roasted chicken breast comes with a late summer succotash, and chanterelle mushrooms. A pork chop, though, comes already sliced. It has a fine flavor, but when the chef cuts your food up for you, it's straight back to childhood.
If you have your sights on a bottle of Seghesio Zinfandel or Ancient Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon from the limited wine list, order the braised veal cheeks, a dish rich enough to stand up to the tannins. Hanger steak, while cooked a perfect medium rare, could stand to lose the cloying sweet sauce.
A few items miss, such as a Xiomara "daily raw," sea bass tartare with odd (and sweet) accompaniments. Pasta is not yet a strong suit. Gnocchi with lamb ragu is gummy and the farmers market vegetable pasta with corn and broccoli rabe is bland with a sauce that tastes as if it's had sugar added to it.
Save the sweetness for dessert, a plate of sugar-dusted doughnut holes to dip in a lush chocolate sauce or mascarpone cheesecake just ready for the spoon.
The kitchen needs to work on consistency. My last meal was the least impressive. It could have been the chef's night off, but dishes had less polish, as if the kitchen were running on auto-pilot.
Ardolina made what must have been a tough decision to give up her Cuban-accented nueva latina cuisine for tried-and-true Californian. But she's made the transition with typical grace and style, aiming to turn her namesake restaurant from more of a special-occasion place to a neighborhood fixture. Yet underneath it all is something ineffably Cuban, which comes out in the warm service, that buttery bread and at lunch in the Cubano sandwich upgraded with Black Forest ham, slow-roasted pork and Swiss cheese.
XIOMARA ON MELROSE
RATING:One and a half stars
LOCATION: 6101 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 461-0601; http://www.xiomararestaurant.com.
PRICE: Dinner small plates and salads, $6 to $10; main courses, $14 to $20; desserts, $7. Lunch small plates, $7 to $11; salads, $9 to $14; sandwiches, $12 to $13; mains, $14 to $22. Corkage fee, $10, waived on Mondays.
DETAILS: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; and for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.