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It’s J. Lo’s place, and for fans that’s enough

Times Staff Writer

TRY making a reservation at Madre’s, mega-star Jennifer Lopez’s Pasadena restaurant. Half the time you get an answering machine that requests you leave your name and number, but before you can do so, a robotic voice cuts in with the information that the message box is full.

After a couple more tries, booking a table at Madre’s begins to seem like a full-time job. And the prospect of joining the mob of avid fans who are presumably thronging this 7-month-old restaurant doesn’t hold the same thrill. When I finally manage to get someone on the phone, I get the usual trendy restaurant routine: the choice of a table at 6:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. For J. Lo -- anything.

Quiet Pasadena, though, seems an odd choice for the star’s restaurant. West Hollywood or the Sunset Strip, even Los Feliz makes more sense. But for whatever reason, the singer, movie star and former Fly Girl chose to install Madre’s on a dark side street downtown.

As we pull up in front, the valet opens the door for a Latina woman dressed to kill, her long hair streaming like J. Lo’s. Outside the entrance a trio of young fans, each holding a doggy bag, wait for their car on a bench sheltered by a stylish white-and-tan striped awning.

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At the immense dark-wood bar where fat ivory candles burn, a bartender twirls his cocktail shaker like a six-shooter. The drinks are good. He makes a mean Manhattan and sugary mojitos laced with rum and sprigs of mint. A trio of strolling musicians playing “Besame Mucho” adds some life.

The menu cover, a replica of a fanciful cigar box, reads “Madre’s, a Latin restaurant,” but for all intents and purposes, it’s Cuban with a few dishes from other Latin countries thrown into the mix.

The restaurant, designed by Rachel Ashwell of Shabby Chic, has the muted look of a vintage photo of Old Havana with dark wood and high-gloss cream walls. Long, dusty-rose damask velvet curtains divide the dining room from the bar, and are pulled back in front of several romantic booths. Velvet banquettes and pale pink chair backs echo the colors in the roses tucked into silver vases at each table.

The room has a festive, romantic feel and a flea market chic. Tables are set with antique embroidered linens, cut-glass stemware and flowered china. The whole effect is very pretty and girly.

Waiter?

Although Ashwell has created a warm and inviting set, Lopez has failed to pass out a script. Nobody seems to be in charge at Madre’s. The staff sometimes acts as if they wonder what you’re doing there. Yet people just keep coming, drawn by the J. Lo connection. Eventually they won’t. Because the management isn’t doing anything to keep them or to acknowledge the effort fans made to come and check out their favorite star’s restaurant.

No one is expecting to find her greeting people at the door, or smooching with the sexiest man alive in one of the private booths. But the restaurant should feel as if someone is at home and taking care of business.

The major shortcoming is the food. Except for a few dishes, it’s beyond unmemorable. It may be the worst Cuban food in Southern California. The best things on the menu are the black beans and rice, which come with entrees. The beans are soft and well-seasoned, served slightly soupy.

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Tostones, smashed green plantains fried to a pale gold, are delicious, too. Salads, such as ensalada tradicional of romaine, cucumbers and tomatoes in a citrus-drenched vinaigrette, or a similar one topped with ripe avocado, are pleasant, though not particularly distinctive. Black bean soup, usually one of the glories of Cuban cuisine, is a dark sludge of beans with barely any seasoning.

Other starters include empanadas with a rather tough crust and either a spiced beef filling or chicken, and a mild and very ordinary Cuban-style tamale filled with either chicken or pork. Papas rellenos, potatoes stuffed with ground beef, are best skipped.

A number of the main courses are close to inedible. Ropa vieja, how bad can it be? This beef has had all the life cooked out of it, and isn’t helped by the limp khaki peppers and carrots thrown on top. The best thing about arroz con pollo is the rice, and that’s not saying much. One night, a special roast Cornish game hen is so overcooked, its gummy stuffing of black beans and rice seems more appealing than the bird. Marinated oxtail slowly stewed in Spanish wine is marginally better.

But compared with the seafood I tried, they were the highlights of the menu. “El Volcan,” one of the specials of the house, is a tower of giant, tasteless shrimp in tomato sauce. The waiter removed it from the table nearly intact. A special seafood soup is filled with sorry fish and shellfish cooked so long none of it has any flavor and everything has an unappealing, dull cast. None of it tastes that fresh either and no one at our table takes more than a bite.

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Enough

The couple next to us one night pick desultorily at their food. When plates that are virtually untouched are so common, and no one is concerned enough to ask if anything is wrong, it can’t be a good sign. I suspect no one wants to hear the answer.

The best thing about Madre’s is the crowd. Everyone is out to have a good time, and they do, despite everything.

Surely, J. Lo could do better for them than this.

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*

Madre’s

Rating: Fair

Location: 897 Granite Drive, Pasadena; (626) 744-0900.

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Ambience: A girly room with pretty chandeliers dripping crystals, roses in silver vases, ruffled cushions and booths with dusty-rose curtains. Lively bar scene and waiters in guayabera shirts.

Service: From jaded to helpful; it can be torture to get a reservation.

Price: Appetizers, $5 to $14; main courses, $14 to $37; desserts, $6.

Best dishes: Cuban tamale, traditional salad, avocado salad, beef empanada, black beans, rice.

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Wine list: Uninteresting and, for a Latin restaurant, few selections from Latin America or Spain. Corkage, $20.

Best table: The booths in the bar area framed by dusty-rose curtains that can be closed for privacy.

Details: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; bar stays open until 11:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $3.50.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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