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ALL THAT SIZZLES : Deep-Fried Catfish, Chinese Ravioli, Shiitake Salad: Just Three Reasons Why Shiro Shines

My friend showed up on my doorstep tired, a little grumpy and suffering from jet lag. I realized a change of dinner reservations was in order. On another occasion, despite the cramped tables and excruciating noise level, she would have loved Patina’s richly complicated food. But not tonight. Campanile? She was lunching there the next day. Citrus? I considered it. And then I remembered Shiro in South Pasadena, where I had had a very good meal the month before. The room is simple and quiet, the food light and fresh. And the sizzling catfish is even better than Chinois’.

On weeknights, South Pasadena has none of the Westside’s or even Old Town Pasadena’s buzz, yet every one of Shiro’s 50 seats seems to be taken or reserved. The restaurant’s spare good looks are accented with a few abstract paintings in vivid colors. And the gray leather-and-steel chairs actually turn out to be comfortable. A shattered glass wall between the dining room and the kitchen refracts the restaurant’s name spelled out in fuchsia neon. Shiro is short for owner-chef Hideo Yamashiro, who came to Los Angeles from Japan 25 years ago to work at Benihana. Seven years ago, after stints at several restaurants, including Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck, he finally opened his own place.

The menu, which changes frequently, offers half a dozen appetizers and about the same number of main courses and desserts. At first glance, it doesn’t seem particularly exciting or taxing. Descriptions are short and to the point: goat cheese salad with pine nuts, Mexican shrimp with caper sauce, Canadian sea scallops with a ginger-and-lime sauce. We ordered absent-mindedly, more intent on visiting than zeroing in on the menu of a lifetime.

While my friend talked, I sneaked a look at the wine list. Whites far outnumber the reds. I was considering the sparkling Scharffenberger Blanc de Blanc from the Anderson Valley ($22) or a crisp 1992 Gewurztraminer from Domaine Weinbach in Alsace ($21) when I spied the ’91 Chardonnay from Long Vineyards, a tiny producer in Napa Valley. Its elegant, lean style of Chardonnay is well-suited to Shiro’s refined, somewhat austere cooking ($36).

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Our first courses came out swiftly; service is a strong point here. One bite of the chilled tuna sashimi with its tart dressing of finely chopped capers, gherkins and red onions in olive oil and my whole mouth came to attention. Taste this, I told my friend. But she was too intent on her shiitake salad. “For all the New York restaurants I’ve eaten in this year, I haven’t begun to put a bite of salad in my mouth as good as this one,” she raved. And it was wonderful: fat slices of warm shiitake on a bed of wispy greens tossed with diced tomato, bitter endive, enoki mushrooms, daikon sprouts and maybe half a chopped walnut. The walnut oil dressing was a model of subtlety.

Both dishes were deceptively simple, notable for their balance and finesse. Sure of himself and his tastes, Shiro doesn’t feel the need to go to the edge every night. Instead, he cooks a limited menu of perfectly delicious food for a faithful clientele.

At the next table, everyone had an entire catfish curled on the plate. We took the hint and ordered the largest of three sizes. Crunchy on the outside, the flesh was almost custardy within. With a fine ponzu sauce and a pile of cilantro, the sizzling, deep-fried catfish was completely satisfying.

I’ve had a wonderful salad of smoked mussels, scallops and shrimp with peppery daikon sprouts and pink grapefruit, a variation on the mixed seafood salad that is almost always on the menu. I was also enamored of the Chinese ravioli for their silken dough and subtle filling of shrimp and salmon mousse.

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The Long Chardonnay plays well against the velvety rare tuna steak, coated with pepper and set atop a

delicate Champagne sauce. The chef seems to have a knack for finding particularly flavorful pieces of fish, whether California king salmon, New Zealand snapper or Pacific whitefish. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to find great seafood, he contends, because waters all over the world are so polluted.

He has a few non-fish items on the menu, too: delicious lamb chops marinated in garlic and mint and grilled, or rare Sonoma duck breast sliced and fanned out on the plate with a suggestion of raspberry sauce and, often, a charbroiled chicken with a Provencal herb sauce.

Shiro is the dessert chef, too, turning out very good renditions of apple tart, raspberry creme brulee and lemon mousse tart. A dark, tender chocolate mousse cake comes with vanilla ice cream and a marvelous mocha sauce. But for me, the ideal ending to a Shiro meal is his deep- fried won-ton skins, topped with caramelized pears and layered with berries and a refreshing orange creme.

Seven years cooking day in, day out in his own kitchen has only honed Shiro’s skills. Where other chefs might grow restless in the same role and feel the need to open another restaurant or revamp the menu, he keeps his eye on the prize: consistent quality and a faithful clientele.

Shiro, 1505 Mission St., South Pasadena; (818) 799- 4774. Dinner only. Closed Mondays. Parking on the street or in a nearby lot. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $44-$62. Corkage , $8.


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