There are poison spots where restaurants die young. The corner of Green and Wilson streets, for example; it's a tragic three blocks east of the Lake Street shopping area. Roxxi is just one in a string of Pasadena restaurants that died here.
But Hugo Molina seems to be doing fine, possibly because Pasadena fondly remembers chef Molina's 13 years at the Parkway Grill. And possibly because his restaurant recalls so vividly the glory days of California cuisine. The understated setting--pale green walls with a scattering of flower paintings--positively reeks of serious food and tantalizing surprises.
Molina calls his cuisine California with Latin inflections, but the motif of the place is floral. There are flowers on the soup, flowers in the salads, flowers on the entrees and the desserts. You're not surprised at all to find giant floral sprays in the bathrooms.
The Latin inflections are most obvious in the appetizers. Molina's poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp and sauteed mushrooms is an outstanding chile relleno in a subtle sauce of huitlacoche, that refined Mexican fungus that grows on corn cobs, accompanied by a sort of mango-papaya chutney. The quesadillas are two little egg-shaped packets in a crisp, delicate corn crust, one filled with curried chicken and the other with Manchego cheese and sauteed portabello mushrooms.
But the best appetizer, the crab cake, is dazzling California stuff. The cake--all crab meat, about the size of a hamburger bun--is surrounded by a moat of mildly sweet lobster lemon grass cream dribbled Jackson Pollock fashion with mango-papaya salsa and basil infusion. And it's a stretch to find any Latin inflections in that salad of sweet, fresh burrata mozzarella in balsamic vinaigrette, to say nothing of the appetizer pizza topped with caramelized walnuts, Cambozola cheese, papaya and Asian pear.
The huitlacoche sauce reappears on ravioli, where it seems to be at cross purposes with their veal and porcini filling. Speaking of pasta and such, this place does not seem to have a vocation for risotto--its version is watery, and the lobster-brandy reduction is insipidly sweet; the only redeeming feature is the caramelized morels. On the other hand, Molina's lemon linguine is a delight, tossed in a citrus Chardonnay cream sauce and topped with crunchy grilled chicken.
When it comes to meat dishes, the most arresting is the African pheasant, which is ferociously oven-roasted. The skin blackens and curls up raggedly--you look at it and think of aerial bombardment. But the meat is delicious, like a cross between duck and dark meat chicken, and it's nicely complemented by the mild glaze of rum and sugar cane juice. It comes with a gratin of sweet potatoes and Asian pears (mostly you taste sweet potato).
But I'll take the grilled lamb chops, thickly glazed with their highly flavored wild berry and Merlot sauce (which sounds excessive, but it's just red wine glaze punched up a notch--the flavor of the lamb comes through just fine). On the side are mashed potatoes with so much goat cheese and roasted garlic, it's almost a vice.
Or the outstanding filet mignon, tender and flavorful, wrapped in pancetta and dosed with garlic and Roquefort and served with cheesy scalloped potatoes. On the other hand, the salmon baked in a banana leaf, moist though it is, is bland; the best parts are the fresh corn gorditas and the pipian rojo sauce.
There's a reduced menu at lunch, which incorporates some sandwiches, for instance a hot pile of excellent prime rib in a rather stiff toasted bun.
The desserts include ice creams and sorbets in a "cookie cup" (a tuile shaped like a tostada cup) and three tiny creme bru^lees (vanilla, fresh ginger and slightly less interesting macadamia). But they're just the sensible ones. There's filo ravioli with a mincemeat-like pear and apple filling, in papaya caramel sauce with walnut ice cream, and a napoleon filled with berries and a lively, springy lemon custard. The chocolate truffle praline cake is a solid inch of truffle in a couple of flimsy layers of chocolate cake.
Go ahead. Hugo's toughing it out at this corner. You can take some chances too.
Hugo Molina, 1065 E. Green St., Pasadena. (626) 449-7820, fax (626) 449-8109. Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Beer and wine. Street parking, plus a lot located on Wilson Street. All major cards. Dinner for two, $93-$175.
What to Get: crab cake, quesadillas, lemon linguine, filet of beef, grilled lamb chops, lemon berry filo napoleon, chocolate truffle praline cake.