Bar Chelou — where things get ‘weird’ — serves a jolt of eccentricity to Pasadena

A plate of piquillo peppers with boquerones in an orange sauce
Chelou translates from French as “weird,” “strange,” “unexpected” or “dodgy.” It’s a call to individualism, and some surprise.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

After you’ve devoured toast covered with shelled clams and near-molten leeks alongside a few intricately garnished plates of vegetables, and tried not to fill up completely on trout and pork chop entrees, the lemon-chamomile semifreddo at Bar Chelou deserves an honest share of your evening’s appetite.

Layers of Meyer lemon curd and chamomile sherbet are set into a frozen disc. The flavors shine bright and sunny; the textures lean more creamy than icy. A rosette-shaped fritter crowns the top, arranged with a circle of marigold petals. Hardly thicker than a tuile, it snaps with satisfaction against a spoon’s edge. Gildings of lemon confit and calamansi gastrique amplify the acidity more than the sweetness, but not to distraction. The many moving parts click with every mouthful.

Side-by-side photos of Bar Chelou's lemon-chamomile semifreddo and a view of the bar
Don’t skip dessert: Bar Chelou’s lemon-chamomile semifreddo, right, and a view of the bar.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

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Bar Chelou, housed in the same 98-year-old Spanish Colonial Revival building as the Pasadena Playhouse, brings a welcome jolt of eccentricity to local — and really, regional — dining. The beauty and intensity of pastry chef Raymond Morales’ citrus bomb may conclude a meal, but after spending the previous hour or two with chef Douglas Rankin’s savory counterparts, you’re anticipating something a little eye-opening as a finale. It all delivers.

This is a symbiotic reunion for Rankin and Morales, who worked together at the maddeningly named, now-closed Bar Restaurant in Silver Lake. I remember it as much for Rankin’s modernist plates and the 1980s Deco Revival mood (it was very “Miami Vice” in there) as for its timing: It was among the last places I reviewed before the 2020 shutdowns.

A packed Bar Chelou dining room.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

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Chelou is a French word that across various online translation apps can be interpreted as “weird,” “strange,” “unexpected,” “shady” or “dodgy.” You get the picture. It’s a declaration of roguish intent. The gentle paradox is that in a time of exorbitant food costs and labor shortages, when many operators are composing safe, broadly appealing menus to comfort rather than provoke, plenty of us engaged diners still yearn for some individualism, some surprise. Having a knack for offbeat abstractions can be a sound business strategy. Bar Chelou seems to have stayed busy since opening in January, for good reason.

In Silver Lake, Rankin’s style pointed to his time in the kitchen with Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec and Petit Trois. He had absorbed a key aspect of Lefebvre’s aesthetic: Arrange a plate’s main ingredient in a precise, nearly flat geometry and then, for a feral “Grey Gardens” effect, pummel it with mulchy greens and grains and sprays of seed and spice. Rankin made it his own then, but in Pasadena he’s landed on a middle ground that is both wilder and more impressively controlled.

A plate of trout topped with onions and sitting in a yellow and green sauce
One of Bar Chelou’s must-try entrees: rainbow trout with garlic-chive oil and pil pil sauce.
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The first half-dozen dishes on the menu could be billed as Things That Crunch: the clam toast on exceptionally crackly bread inspired by Catalonian pan de cristal (glass bread); shattering phyllo “cigars” filled with mild morcilla to be dunked in herbed apple cider vinegar; crisp potatoes in a close huddle, smeared with aïoli and dusted with aonori (dried seaweed).

From the start, it’s clear that Rankin’s spin-the-globe imaginings know few borders. He bounces across continents in his bravura approach to vegetables. Not all of them shout “plant-based.” Snap peas wallow in anchovy cream under a shower of grated cured egg yolk and crumbled chistorra, a thin Basque sausage. The gist is Bacos and vitello tonnato out together on a farmers market run; the result is uncanny and delicious.

Bar Chelou's chefs smile for a photo in the kitchen.
In the kitchen at Bar Chelou, from left, chef de cuisine Emilio Perez, owner-chef Doug Rankin, pastry chef Raymond Morales and sous chef Peton Johnson.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

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Shredded carrots anchor a salad pooled in coconut-ginger dressing with lime leaf and scattered Thai basil. A smattering of peanuts might add texture in a truer Southeast Asian context; Rankin includes those, but he also piles on a maniacal hill of potato sticks. For sprouting cauliflower, he incorporates Sichuan peppercorns into a classic sauce au poivre, so that tingling mala zaps every buttery bite.

Don’t overlook a sleeper of Bloomsdale spinach lolling in roasted garlic broth and glossed with brown butter. It doesn’t bring visual pyrotechnics, but its echoing umami pulls a grounding sort of balance into the mix.

A table with four vegetable dishes from Bar Chelou in Pasadena.
These don’t scream “plant-based.” Some of Bar Chelou’s vegetable dishes: sprouting cauliflower, carrots, piquillo peppers with boquerones, and snap peas.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

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The rainbow trout entree arrives as a nouvelle cuisine fever dream. Two sauces — a translucent garlic-chive oil and a pil pil (traditionally made by blending salt cod, garlic and olive oil) thinned to the consistency of tahini — blur in circular squiggles around the plate. It brings to mind tie-dye and also, somehow, an image of quicksand swirling with algae. Rice pilaf underneath the nicely seared fish has been simmered in corn juice; it caramelizes in the pan and gives the grains a ragged crispness you hope for but rarely find underneath paella. Final touches of lemon juice and raw onion slivers tame the richness. It’s magnificent.

So is the Ibérico pork chop, frankly juicy and offset with hot mustard sauce and a nest of sour cabbage and onion. Someone at the table should be attacking the bone in the manner of a barbecued rib. Make sure it’s you.

Side-by-side: snap peas with chistorra sausage, grated cured egg yolk and anchovy next to chef Doug Rankin.
Bar Chelou chef Doug Rankin, right, has a knack for plating that’s simultaneously wild and controlled: snap peas with crumbled chistorra sausage, grated cured egg yolk and anchovy cream.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

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Most of Morales’ desserts align with the seasons, as they should. Beyond, say, poached rhubarb paired with raspberry-sumac sorbet, look for an evergreen indulgence of brûléed cheesecake spliced with toffee date cake, served with a spiced coffee anglaise that bridges all the flavors.

Bar Chelou inhabits its name: The space retained many of the design elements of its previous occupant, short-lived Saso, including starburst tiles and a central oval bar near the entrance that’s been painted emerald green. Cocktails are framed as aperitifs, with icebreakers that combine vermouth with cucumber-tinged tonic or mingle Cognac and Chartreuse with sparkling wine.

Speaking of wine: A third dream team member, also reappearing in a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic’s nadir, came on board a couple months back. Kae Whalen is one of my favorite sommeliers. I saw them last at Kismet, where they ran a beverage program that centered around natural wine and were deft at debunking the genre’s worst kombucha-for-people-who-don’t-know-any-better stereotypes.

Sommelier Kae Whalen, chef Doug Rankin and general manager Gretel Diaz stand outside Bar Chelou.
Dream team at Bar Chelou: from left, sommelier Kae Whalen, chef Doug Rankin and general manager Gretel Diaz.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

They’re doing the same here. Note on the list how the names of producers have been bolded among varietal and vintage information: It’s a tiny, seemingly inconsequential detail that helps lead customers into conversation about the people behind the wine. The selection leans French but hops around; prices for most bottles fall in the double digits. Slowdance Zinfandel might surprise you with its fleet juiciness. Domaine des Ardoisières hits with its fruit-trees-in-blossom aromas that zigzag well with Rankin’s flavors. Whatever your taste, put your trust in Whalen.


Twice now I’ve had dinner at Bar Chelou on the later side with friends. The dining room started clearing out, disco blared a little louder from the speakers, and the engaged staff began to relax as we polished off the last of Morales’ desserts and finished a bottle of wine. The Playhouse was letting out as we left the restaurant. Theatergoers rushed out with the electric air of having strayed from real-world anxieties for a couple of hours, their emotional centers shifted however temporarily and their imaginations awake.

We flowed right in step with the crowd, because we knew just what they were feeling.

A couple dines at Bar Chelou as a bartender prepares drinks in the mirror reflection.
The wine selection at Bar Chelou leans French but hops around. Whatever your taste, trust the sommelier.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

Bar Chelou

37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena,
Prices: Starters $7-$15, small plates $10-$23, most entrees $25-$39, desserts $14
Details: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Full bar. Street parking.
Recommended dishes: Clam toast, Bloomsdale spinach, carrots, snap peas, pork chop, rainbow trout, lemon-chamomile semifreddo, brûléed cheesecake

Two people sitting at the bar at Bar Chelou looking at the dining room, and a detail shot of glasses, plates and bar stools
A view from and of the bar at Bar Chelou.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)