STYLE / RESTAURANTS : FRENCH BLISS

It's been two years since I ate my first meal at Xiomara, the small French bistro just off Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena's Old Town. (It's named after owner Xiomara Ardolina and is pronounced SEE-oh-ma-ra.) I remember how cosseted I felt, sitting at the banquette along the wall, sipping a glass of Charles Joguet's ruby Chinon while I watched the waiter carry a white porcelain terrine of duck marbled with foie gras to the table and cut me a thick slice ribboned with a half-inch of sweet, yellow duck fat. With it came warm slabs of fine-textured brioche, a shimmering mound of minced Port gelee and a swatch of beautifully dressed greens flanked by little pickled turnips. I almost couldn't believe my luck. But it wasn't surprising once I put two and two together. When Patrick Healy's own contemporary French restaurant, Champagne, closed in 1992, the Westside's loss was Pasadena's gain.

I ate every bit of that glorious terrine and then sat back and waited for the next course: his Provencal daube of lamb. This time, the waiter brought a cast-iron casserole, the lid sealed by a ribbon of baked dough. When he pulled away the bread and spilled the casserole's steaming, fragrant contents onto a tangle of egg noodles, the effect was wonderful. Healy knows that the supple lamb shank, the chunks of shoulder and raft of ribs, marinated three days in red wine, show to best advantage with only a handful of pearl onions and mushrooms, a few bright slivers of carrot--and the rich brown juices. Such a stew is one of this world's great comfort foods.

For dessert, there was a sublime pear tarte tatin. Lusciously caramelized, the pear slices were lined up on a short buttery crust with a scoop of eggy vanilla ice cream melting alongside. I would have to look hard to find such a meal in Paris or Lyon. I never expected to find it in Pasadena. Now I know better.

Healy's cooking is about as soulful as country French gets. And it doesn't come just from reading cookbooks. His grandmother was one of Julia Child's best friends, which may have helped to smooth the way when he wanted to go to France to cook at 19. Stints at Troisgros, Michel Guerard and Le Moulin de Mougins gave the young chef a thorough grounding in French technique. And when he came back to the States five years later, he worked at Los Angeles' Le St. Germaine and Colette before opening his own place.

Xiomara's menu is filled with dishes that make you want to eat. Like the seared foie gras with purple-black roasted figs set on a cushion of polenta drenched with the pan juices. Or the meaty porcini mushrooms that crown a risotto bathed in cream and surrounded by a moat of dark, delicious stock made from veal shank and Madeira. And especially the fluffy sweet corn cake, each bite ethereal, laced with nuggets of lobster.

Healy's food is never fussy. What a relief to find a chef who doesn't spend longer putting the food on the plate and teasing ingredients into evermore elaborate constructions than he does considering how the food actually tastes. Salmon steak rolled in cracked black peppercorns and presented with a mound of butter-rich mashed potatoes and deep green spinach leaves is so classic, it doesn't require any bells and whistles. Nor does the magnificent prime rib chop for two. Carved at the table, the chop yields enough meat to fill both plates and then some. It comes with wonderful, golf ball-sized potato croquettes.

Healy has a real affection for grandmotherly dishes of the French countryside, where the flavor is results from hours of slow cooking. I'll drive a long, long way for Healy's cassoulet, served up in such a generous portion that you can take some home for the next day. It's a complex dish and he's not taking any shortcuts. The dried white beans are allowed to simmer with slab bacon, duck confit, lamb shoulder and pork ribs and rustic handmade sausages so that the beans soak up all the flavor of the mingled juices.

He also turns out some extraordinarily delicious seafood dishes. Not everybody will like his tuna tartare , but I do. Ahi tuna is ground to a fine paste and dosed with just enough wasabi to give it a bite without obscuring the taste of the raw fish. At lunch (which is a great bargain), there's an utterly seductive pasta dish: a rich, saffron-scented bouillabaisse broth loaded with scallops, shrimp, calamari and black mussels, with a handful of penne thrown into the mix. And a dollop of sharp, garlicky rouille.

The kitchen can be uneven, though. Halibut aioli, a moist slab of fish surrounded with pretty vegetables, is topped one night with a wimpy aioli that has hardly a whiff of garlic. Another night, saddle of rabbit, usually one of the best dishes, is too sweet and tomatoe-y. And often the terrines are served too cold. Like cheeses, their flavors are more expansive at room temperature.

With a couple of exceptions, desserts are not quite at the level of the rest of the menu, and they're too big and too rich for one person. The apricot souffle that Healy has been making since his Champagne days cloys after a few bites (and there's enough to feed four). Floating island, a mound of meringue capped with caramel, sits in an over-rich praline mousseline sauce. Best is the less sweet chocolate trio: a miniature caramel ice cream sandwich, chocolate mousse in a white chocolate cup and a tender chocolate flan with espresso sauce.

But you could also choose a glass of mirabelle plum eaux-de-vie from the Alsace producer Trimbach or Domaine Durban's honey-and-peach-scented Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, a fortified dessert wine from the Rhone valley. Healy has given a lot of thought to the wine list, which includes a one-page crib sheet of well-priced country wines matched with menu suggestions.

When it's time for coffee, the waiter pours from a tall silver pot, a nice touch. And throughout the meal, Ardolina herself stops by to suss things out, whispering instructions to the waiter, running interference for the kitchen. And sometimes at the end of the night, as late diners linger, Healy wanders out and owner and chef sit at the bar, sharing a glass of wine after a night's work well done.

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XIOMARA

CUISINE: Country French. AMBIENCE: Small bistro with brick walls, banquettes and an inviting bar. BEST DISHES: duck and foie gras terrine, sweet corn pancake with lobster, Provencal lamb daube, country cassoulet. WINE PICKS: Babcock Sauvignon Blanc "11 Oaks Ranch," 1993, Joguet Chinon "Clos de la Cure," 1993. FACTS: 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (818) 796-2520. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $50 to $100; three-course bistro menu $25; three-course business luncheon $12. Corkage $15. Valet parking.

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