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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Pasadena’s Menage: Backgammon, Bar Snacks

The big debate in the women’s restroom, said my dessert investigator, was whether to stay at Menage or head over to DC 3. The sticking point was not the 20-mile drive to Santa Monica but DC 3’s $15 Friday/Saturday cover charge versus Menage’s $5. The thrifty traditions of Old Pasadena, she reported, seemed to be winning the day.

Hey, why leave? At Menage the Pasadenans already had practically all the necessities of life: a roaring bar full of sharply dressed people, plus a disco, backgammon tables, a 21 game complete with dealer (play is only for chips, not money), and big-screen TVs showing footage of hang-gliders. And how delicious to enter by a door right across the hall from the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce!

Surprisingly, these swinging premises also make food--a little Cajun, a little Southwestern, a little whatever--that turns out to be well above the oyster shooter/stuffed spud level. The lobster ravioli, with a particularly buttery lobster filling, are some of the best around and Menage shrewdly makes them available either as an appetizer or a main course. The fried zucchini strips are possibly a little mushy but good crisp breading gives them the backbone to stand up to the mild horseradish sauce.

Among the Southwestern appetizers, the tortilla soup is sort of a warm version of table salsa, with tortilla chips, grated cheese and more salsa on the side to doctor it with. And the ceviche, for once, is decently spicy. One of the pastas drove me wall-eyed, though: The fettuccine alfredo was halfway to macaroni and cheese.

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The entrees are dealt from four decks: seafood, chicken, pasta and beef. The chicken dishes come with something like a light pilaf of what’s listed as “melon seed pasta” ( orzo , that is--pasta shaped like melon seeds, not made from them), pleasantly scented with fennel. They include a blackened chicken that has been cooked at the regulation high temperature but not ruined, and a crowd-pleasing Mediterranean stir-fry of chicken with raisins, pine nuts and vegetables.

The sauce on the shrimp etouffee is sweet and thick, almost tomato paste, and at times struck me as practically a certain sort of barbecue sauce, but delicious anyhow. Mahi-mahi comes in red pepper sauce, and though I’m coming to the conclusion that red bell peppers are just a mild variation on paprika this was a lively version. Another fish entree comes in delicate cilantro cream sauce. There are a couple of steaks, the most interesting being a filet mignon with a very dashing mustard and green peppercorn sauce.

So far, so good, but Menage was a disappointment to my dessert scout. A decently tart cheesecake was the best thing on the indecently short list, but she pronounced the remaining choices (chocolate mousse and carrot cake) too sweet, not a combination of words often heard from her.

A shame. But it was nothing, really, that a couple of hands of 21 and some hang-gliding footage couldn’t cure.

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Menage, 119 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (818) 568-9164. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $34 to $55


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