Xiomara, Pasadena's passionately French bistro, has gone bicultural. A couple of months ago, owner Xiomara Ardolina, a Cuban expatriate, turned the small back room into a tropical hideaway with a savvy Cuban menu and called it Oye. Odd? Not really. The French have always had a penchant for the Caribbean: Cuban musicians such as Don Barreto and his Orchestre Cubain were the toast of Paris in the '30s, and the City of Lights revels in Caribbean restaurants to this day.
Oye, with its white banquettes, feathery palms and filmy drapes, evokes an intimate supper club out of film noir. It's a bit disconcerting, though, to see yourself reflected again and again in the mirrored walls. And the lighting is either too harsh or too dim, depending on the table, making it difficult to decide where to sit. But then the lilting voices of Beny More, Celia Cruz and Albita spin the room into an enchanting island haze.
Xiomara's executive chef, Patrick Healy, has devised a wonderful menu of sophisticated for Oye. Ceviche is served in a martini glass with an olive speared on a crystal pick. There are squeaky-fresh scallops, cracked conch, clams and squid, juicy with lime and packing the firepower of habanero. The fluffy tamal is garnished with thumb-sized chanterelles from Oregon and a rosy Gulf shrimp sauce. Black bean soup is perfumed with cumin and punctuated with cornmeal-dusted fried okra "croutons."
One of L.A.'s best French chefs, Healy knows a thing or two about sauces. That's why I keep dipping the enticingly crisp cigar-sized duck taquitos into the smoldering chipotle cream sauce, alternating bites with a minimalist salad of pea pods, avocado and pink grapefruit in a soothing orange dressing. For those who adore salt cod, Healy sets a dense, delicious bacalao cake in a chilled tomato sauce.
What Healy has done is take Ardolina's taste memories of Cuba and give them a contemporary twist to create something as exciting and sultry as Albita's voice. Ropa vieja--beef stewed so long that it can be pulled apart into savory threads, each strand loaded with flavor--is fabulous. Charred Cuban strip steak is garnished with wilted red onion, a fan of creamy ripe avocado slices and crunchy yuca fries. And there's a marvelous swordfish "sandwich" slathered in a sprightly tomatillo-cilantro sauce strewn with the tiniest, sweetest cherry tomatoes you could imagine. But the tour de force is his Caribbean cassoulet. For Oye, Healy translates the dish brilliantly by substituting black beans cooked with a spicy chorizo, succulent smoked pork loin and rabbit, thick slices of bacon and starchy sweet plantains for the usual white beans simmered with pork sausage and confit of duck.
Occasionally, however, updating a dish doesn't improve it. The idea of layering moros (black beans) with a dense, chewy risotto left me longing for moros y cristianos, savory black beans mixed with fluffy white rice. Better to wait until Friday and Saturday nights, when there's a superb paella, each grain of rice perfectly cooked, scented with saffron and laden with tender squid, sweet langoustine, shrimp and a fiery chorizo redolent of sweet spices.
Desserts, unfortunately, are the weakest offerings. Three pretty flancitos, miniature flans flavored with guava, mamey sapote and guanabana, are grainy and dense. Tres leches, a cake made with three milks, is sugary sweet. The best choices are the tropical fruit soup and the moist chocolate and cream cake topped with sliced bananas under a burnt-sugar glaze.
To drink, try the handful of South American wines or order off Xiomara's wine list. And after 11 p.m., you can enjoy a cigar with the restaurant's island rums.
One of the more interesting debuts this year, Oye offers intelligent, sensuous food. Not exactly fusion, it's high-spirited Cuban food filtered through a refined French sensibility.
CUISINE: Contemporary Cuban. AMBIENCE: Intimate with mirrored walls and white banquettes. BEST DISHES: Ceviche, duck taquitos, shrimp tamal, ropa vieja, cassoulet. WINE PICK: Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve "Don Maximiano," Chile, 1991. FACTS: 69 N. Raymond Ave. (in Xiomara), Pasadena; (818) 796-3286. Dinner daily; weekday lunch to begin soon. Dinner for two, food only, $60 to $80. Corkage $15. Cigar smoking after 11 p.m. Valet parking.