Dining Review: Altaeats is truly a special something

The first time you drive to Altaeats, you'll probably miss it. Situated between a salon and a cleaners on North Allen just south of New York Drive, the diminutive Altadena eatery has no sign, only a black awning. But find it you must. It's not often a restaurant with such meticulously prepared dishes opens in our drivable realm.

A couple years back, head chef and co-owner Paul Ragan, formerly of Derek's Bistro in Pasadena, was walking his Altadena neighborhood, toying with the idea of buying a food truck when he came upon this vacant property. Why not make high-end food accessible to the folks in his beloved neighborhood? He gutted and rebuilt the old fish market-cum-restaurant-cum-catering company into a minimalist haven with a chic, communal feel. Ragan recalled working with John Michael Munekiyo at Derek's, an apprentice fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu at the time, and knew he had that special something. Now, Ragan and sous-chef Munekiyo turn out many special somethings every night.

Typically those special somethings have been in the works for days in advance. For instance, the pork belly appetizer would be seasoned with spice rub 24 hours before, then braised for five hours more, weights compressing it to slowly render out the unnecessary fat. It's served with roasted and caramelized peaches (or other seasonal fruit), arugula, goat cheese and a honey-hazelnut-chive balsamic. The sweetbreads, which only make an appearance on the specials menu every now and again, are poached in wine then soaked in buttermilk overnight to remove impurities. After more straining, poaching and pressing, they're floured, panko-crusted and pan-fried to a crispy delicateness and served with a roasted chili ketchup.

Plates at Altaeats are meant to be shared with no distinction on the menu between appetizers and entrees. Still it's clear where the lighter, more yin foods end and the yangs begin. Lighter fare include the nutty roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and piquillos, the cauliflower florets dusted with cumin and pine nuts, and the trio of scallops — seared, curried and pankoed — elegantly arranged on long, rectangular plates. In the yang or substantial category, the gorgeous rack of lamb reigns supreme. An old recipe of Ragan's, these bone-in chops are succulent and fragrant, served with a thick, delicious round of potato-leek gratin. Duck hash resides somewhere in the middle, with its cubes of meaty duck and sweet apricot, chili ketchup and sous-vide hen egg topper.

They also do an amazing brick chicken, Ora King salmon with saffron, and mushroom rib eye, but those may be on the specials menu so I hate to get your hopes up. Desserts are equally decadent. We've been talking about the bourbon butterscotch custard we had for days now.

Servers are, for the most part, professional, well-informed and charming. They gladly open and pour your bottles of wine, chilling the whites, all for no corkage fee. If you forget to bring your own, Altadena Beverage is two doors down. Be aware that the noise level can be high, if that's a problem for you. There's only street parking but it's fairly easy to find. Our only complaint was the lack of robust air conditioning. Two people in our party had to step outside on an especially hot night.

Once things cool down, I will certainly be returning to Altaeats. It's a great choice for out-of-town guests, romantic interludes, or dinner with gastronomy-minded friends.

What: Altaeats

Where: 1860 N. Allen Ave., Altadena

When: Wednesday through Monday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Closed Tuesday.

Prices: Appetizers and entrees to share $7 to $28.

More info: (626) 794-1162; Reservations strongly recommended at altaeats.com.

LISA DUPUY writes restaurant reviews for the Los Angeles Times Community News.

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