When Cafe Jacoulet opened in Pasadena in 1984, critics immediately compared it to Michael’s in Santa Monica. Both were pioneering what was then being trumpeted as “California Cuisine.” Both offered dishes such as hot duck salad, sweetbreads with morel sauce and duck breast in raspberry sauce.
But California Cuisine began to evolve in different ways. In the beginning, both restaurants had menus written in French, but as Michael’s segued into English, it followed a more American muse. Meanwhile, Cafe Jacoulet was looking to the East.
Cafe Jacoulet, of course, was sold, and then closed, three years ago, but visitors to Cinnabar in Glendale will invariably be reminded of it. This is not only because Alvin Simon, Jacoulet’s owner, is at the door and Hisashi Yoshiara, Jacoulet’s chef, is in the kitchen. It’s also because Cinnabar has the same hip, friendly feel as Cafe Jacoulet--and a few of the restaurant’s signature dishes. These days, however, nobody would compare it to Michael’s.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of an old Bekins building, and the clean, spare space has the urban ambience of a restaurant in New York’s Tribeca district. It’s been warmed up a bit by columns painted in the namesake red and by the bar from the old Yee Mee Loo in Chinatown, but otherwise the high ceilings and big windows are unapologetically offered as decor.
The room’s fairly small; so is the menu. It becomes a bit bigger when you realize that each dish does double duty: Rather than offer appetizers and entrees, the food is simply offered in two sizes. You eat them in whatever quantities, and whatever order, you wish. At Cafe Jacoulet, one of the signature dishes was won ton de thon cru a la moutarde. I always thought the mustard sauce was too strong for the raw tuna. Here the dish has metamorphosed into a far more elegant and subtle dish, mille-feuille of yellowtail. Lean tuna has turned into the far richer yellowtail, the won-ton skins have become extraordinarily crisp, feathery discs of pastry, and the heavy sauce has disappeared. So now the dish is a truly satisfying presentation: layers of buttery slices of raw fish and crisp, cilantro-flecked pastry topped with black sesame seeds and encircled by candied ginger.
The other great dish here is the consomme with potato ravioli; if there’s a better bowl of soup in town, I haven’t had it. This is a deeply flavorful vegetarian stock edged with the intensity of shiitake mushrooms. The soup is filled with soft pillows of ravioli that are a sensualist’s delight. I order a bowl every time I eat at Cinnabar.
Potatoes don’t turn up very often here, but when they do, they’re good. The swordfish comes on a buttery bed of potato mousseline, with a stand-up decoration of fried noodles fanned out above it. The potatoes are fabulous, but you find yourself wishing that there were more of them.
The swordfish is a French-accented dish, but for the most part the menu veers off in the direction of Asia. Halibut, a fish that does not suffer from a chef’s aggressive intervention, is particularly impressive here. A special one night, the fish came wrapped in tofu sheets, which added an elusive flavor. Presented in an onion-studded sweet-sour tomato sauce, the fish was extraordinarily moist. There’s a “bouillabaisse” on the menu, but it’s a lot closer to something you’d find in a Thai restaurant than to anything invented in France. The soup tastes intensely of lemon grass, and it’s filled with Manila clams, shrimp and Dungeness crab. There are a few strands of clear noodles, too, which leave you longing for the substantial piece of bread that accompanies true bouillabaisse.
Duck is air-dried and delicious and is served with a bao. Chicken comes with a Thai-accented green curry; it’s very nice, but the rice with it could certainly be served with a more generous hand. In fact, that’s true of many of the dishes here. My biggest criticism of Cinnabar is that the restaurant serves too little starch and too few vegetables.
Desserts are a different matter: The best of them, the chocolate fondue, is almost absurdly large. The big pot of hot chocolate comes with a plate of beautifully sliced kiwi, strawberries, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. For an extra $1.50, they’ll throw a shot of Cognac into the melted chocolate, which seems like a deal. The next-best dessert is the apple cannelloni, a sort of tube of fruit-filled pastry embellished with ice cream and black peppercorns.
California Cuisine was supposed to have died a while back. Maybe it didn’t. Michael’s is still out in Santa Monica (still, by the way, serving pretty delicious food) and Cinnabar is here in Glendale, carving out new territory. If this is what California Cuisine has come to, I’d like more, please.
Cinnabar, 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 551- 1155. Lunch served Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25 to $62.