One night a few months ago, while stopped at Holly Street and Raymond Avenue in Pasadena, I saw a tall, good-looking couple emerge from Tra Fiori. They were slim and long-legged, like dancers; their finery gleamed under the street lamps. They took a few steps away from the closing door and fell into each other's arms in passionate embrace.
I couldn't help wondering, was it something they ate?
On a recent Saturday night, my date and I made reservations at Tra Fiori and put on some of our best clothes. We arrived on time and found a small line. The bar was crowded and a grizzled piano player played old jazzy tunes. A very handsome man in a very expensive suit leaned in a doorway and smoked with a distant look in his eyes. Waiters raced from table to table, arms laden with dishes.
Soon enough, a hostess led us to our table, and we were immediately given some warm sourdough bread and a fried oyster on a doily.
Tra Fiori has replaced and enlarged upon Cafe Jacoulet, the Franco-Japanese restaurant that previously occupied the site. As it happens, the restaurant has new owners, but the same chef. The owners appropriated the corner storefront, eliminated the little take-out counter and gave the place a sleeker, expensive new look. The chef was asked to give the menu an Italian emphasis. Now, our waiter informed us, Tra Fiori offers Northern Italian-Japanese cuisine.
I started my dinner with tuna carpaccio, which was just like Cafe Jacoulet's " wan tan de thon dru a la moutarde " with a new name: It was tuna sashimi stacked on square fried won tons and topped with a thick, grainy, quite French mustard sauce. I was given chopsticks as alternate utensils. I became very confused. Why was there this heavy mustard sauce on delicate tuna? How was one to eat a 3x3-inch crisp, loaded-down won ton with chopsticks? Was this Italian? Meanwhile, my date had seared steak and arugula salad that was drenched in a strong, too-sweet vinaigrette.
Next, we split a pasta special: black ravioli stuffed with fresh sea scallops and lobster, with lobster sauce and a few bright vegetables. The chunk of lobster in the center of this visually dramatic plate was luscious; otherwise, the pasta was uninteresting and the big scallops overcooked.
The service was for the most part prompt and friendly. I'd ordered chicken breasts on Italian lima beans, two items I generally love. But they came in a watery, peculiar-tasting broth. My date had a swordfish with fresh chanterelles; the fish was all right, but the wild mushrooms were lost in a thick mustardy sauce that also obviated any virtue in the fish.
As we left, we noted that the bar had become more of a bar: more Saturday night drinkers than diners. We stepped out into the night and did not embrace passionately the street corner. We did, however, walk companionably to our car. It was a nice, enjoyable evening.
Lunch, a few days later, was even more pleasant. We sat in the bar, which was bright and sunny. I ordered the minestrone to start, though what made it minestrone was beyond me. There was no pasta, no beans, but it proved to be a serviceable, nourishing chicken soup. My date's carpaccio was, for once, carpaccio: thin slices of beef in a good olive oil with some good Parmesan cheese and a few capers.
I had ordered the lasagna and when it came, I began to understand what the chef might be doing with his Italian-Japanese cuisine. This was not lasagna as we know it; it was, rather, a layer of smoked salmon, then a sheet of pasta, then lobster, then pasta, then lobster sauce and a bit of Parmesan. In all, the dish was light and pleasing. My date had deliciously fresh scampi on some great, homemade al dente fettuccine. We split a grainy, very sweet and pretty slice of ricotta cheesecake, and I had more of that good espresso. When we stepped outside, we almost embraced.
Tra Fiori, 91 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (818) 796-2233. Lunch Tuesday through Saturday; brunch Sunday; dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Full bar. Major credit cards. Valet parking. D inner for two, food only, $35 to $80.