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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Memories of Noise, Laughs--and Peas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After an initial, memorable visit to Gordon Biersch, I confidently drag three friends there for a birthday supper one hot Saturday night. What a mistake!

All brick and sleek wood, with a gleaming stainless steel brewery behind glass, this Northern Californian chain restaurant opened earlier this year in a courtyard of theaters, restaurants and shops called Hugus Alley--or, depending on whom you talk to, Yuppie Central--in Pasadena’s Old Town. Indeed, if you want to see what fashions from nearby J. Crew, Banana Republic and A/X look like on the hoof, take a seat at Gordon Biersch--or, more likely, a bench out front, where you’ll wait for your beeper to buzz.

Entering this restaurant for the first time, I notice noise. The place seems a large, elaborate box of noise--as if it were a commodity architects yearned to capture and increase.

That first night, we are seated in a small alcove where the sound does not reverberate with such intensity. We can relax, even talk.

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Gordon Biersch is a brewery restaurant and the food, one assumes, is meant to go with beer--the smooth golden Export lager, the full-bodied Marzen and the dark unfiltered Dunkles. Barbecued chicken wings, sticky-sweet, spicy and cooled by a subtly sneaky hot jalapeno cream, are impossible to stop eating. A busy salad with garden vegetables, mozzarella and a soft, herbed flat bread makes up in freshness what it lacks in focus.

A special, blackened sea bass on cannellini beans with a fresh tomato-onion salsa is well-conceived, but I can’t keep my fork out of my companion’s lamb chops and minted peas. It’s the peas I’m after: Absolutely fresh, odd-sized, crunchy and sweet, these peas are one of the best things I’ve eaten all summer. They are so good, I forget the noise and look with pity on the woman sitting near us who hates her dinner, and the other customers around us clamoring for the waiter’s, the busperson’s, somebody’s attention.

The service here is woefully inadequate, but minted peas widen the heart. Those peas also affect perspective, for shortly after, I bring a birthday celebration to Gordon Biersch.

*

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We are seated at a table in the thick of the clamor. Only a low glass partition separates us from the body-packed bar. Conversation is out. So is decent service. Our waitress, a big-boned woman with a raucous laugh, apologizes for making us wait so long . . . and laughs. In time, drinks arrive, as do uninspired appetizers: pale, limp calamari fritti , soggy deep-fried rock shrimp, a Caesar salad of whole romaine spears and large, blond, rock-hard croutons we assume are mere design elements--surely the kitchen doesn’t expect us to eat them?

Pappardelle with tomatoes and asparagus tastes like something you settle for at home when you’re too lazy to go to the store. Roast chicken is moist, but served on a mound of dense, salty mashed potatoes with salty gravy. Sirloin steak ordered medium-rare is bloody, wobbly rare, and a cheeseburger ordered rare is decisively well-done. Where’s our waitress? Sometimes, in the din, we think we hear that laugh. After some time, my friend with the cheeseburger walks up to the kitchen, where cooks agree to make him a new one. Later, our waitress reappears: “Oh, did you have burger trauma?” she asks . . . and laughs.

We head next door, to Il Fornaio, for dessert.

One good meal, one lousy: I need a tie-breaker. This time, we sit outside--a longer wait, but waiting’s nothing compared to torture-by-noise. And we have a more present waitress . . . until she starts chatting with a friend. The food, however, is disastrous. Steamed mussels are strong-tasting, brackish. A special tamale is a husk purse of dry, crumbly masa and goat cheese. Baby back ribs have that good sticky-sweet sauce, but the accompanying garlic fries are small, soggy, refried scraps. Seared scallops on fettucine have the dullness of the pappardelle and the brackishness of the mussels.

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Given the lower sound level, we stay for dessert. An ice cream sandwich is hard, rich ice cream on fragile toffee wafers. Hot “tandoori” bananas, tucked under ice cream, whipped cream and candied pecans, are almost as sweet as silence.

* Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, 41 Hugus Alley, Pasadena, (818) 449-0052. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$65.


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