My first meal at Mi Piace was a business lunch four years ago. The explosion of Italian cafes in Los Angeles had just begun to reverberate in the 'burbs. My editor and I had both grown up eating in Pasadena's Roma Gardens, and he was thrilled to show me that the Rose City finally had a restaurant attempting trendier Northern Italian dishes. After an iceberg lettuce salad and an overcooked capellini alla checca, I did not want to dampen my editor's enthusiasm, but I could not share it.
I did revisit Mi Piace a few times, coaxed by friends who liked the look of the place. Old Town was still struggling to be born, and the white, airy room with enormous clean windows was as hip and with-it a venue as any in Pasadena. I disliked the inevitable wait for a table: There's no place to stand that is out of the way and the large plates of mediocre food did not justify the inconvenience. Passing by, I'd see people clustered out front in the evenings, waiting, and their desire seemed like a riddle to me. I'd peer in those vast clean windows, see the great snarls of pasta glistening on dark plates, and nothing in me responded. I'd eaten that pasta and now, it had no power over me.
Like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the food sustained a large, devoted following even without critical acclaim. Still, the owners apparently wanted to elevate the restaurant's cachet and a year ago, they hired an executive chef with sterling credentials: Francois Kwaku-Dongo, formerly of Spago. For many months, Kwaku-Dongo's touch was seen only on the page of nightly specials handed out with Mi Piace's regular menu. Recently, a new menu was introduced that includes all the old favorites, plus a selection of Kwaku-Dongo's specialties. A sheet of nightly specials is still handed out.
After a spate of recent visits, in which I dipped into the new menu and tried various nightly specials, it would seem that Mi Piace has had more effect on Mr. Kwaku-Dongo than vice versa.
An appetizer of stuffed mussels is solid in concept: mussels stuffed with a kind of dry rouille and sauced with saffron cream. The mussels are fine, but the stuffing looks like something you'd pull out of a drain and the cream is so overdosed with saffron, it has a scorched, medicinal taste. A salad of rare beef is a big clump of the usual mixed greens, dressed with what tastes like bottled dressing, and topped with ragged spokes of rare beef and chunks of waxy, unripe Roma tomatoes. The word that comes to mind for this $9 salad? Inelegant.
An even more disheveled appetizer has more heaped greens and tasteless Romas plus over-marinated cucumbers, a doughy egg roll and slices of quite delicious sauteed scallops. The salmon tempura has the same greens, uneven chunks of breaded and fried salmon and two shaggy avocado slices--doesn't the kitchen have a sharp knife?
Tasty, smoked duck-filled ravioli is the best thing we try. Swordfish is muddled by a thick gob of grainy mustard sauce. Salmon, overcooked, is cloaked in a cold, heavy tomato salsa.
Desserts can be just as dismal. The crust of a blueberry pear cobbler is soggy with butter. Three-chocolate terrine, astoundingly faint in flavor, rests in grainy espresso cream. An individual poppy seed lemon tart is powerful lemon curd in a crust scantly peppered with poppy seed.
I had somewhat better luck ordering off the menu, although not with appetizers. A goat cheese and eggplant salad is yet another heap of over-dressed greens topped with tomatoes and eggplant soaked in a strong, unappealing vinaigrette. It's July, the heart of tomato season: Why can't the caprese come with decent tomatoes?
But a linguine with scallops and rapini is just right, and so are ravioli , large rounds of chewy pasta filled with well-seasoned ricotta and spinach and topped with a decent marinara and shaved dry ricotta.
The former Spago chef and the new menu have certainly not altered Mi Piace's appeal: They're still lining up to eat, the wait is still long and awkward, and the food still eludes at least this critic's acclaim.
* Mi Piace, 25 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 795-3131. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine only. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$65.