Unusual Dining Experiences

Virtually any local foodie can tell you that SoCal has been in the midst of a dynamic and diverse dining boom in recent years. Indeed, I am not the only observer who is happy to declare the region the world’s currently reigning epicenter of food and dining. It’s a bold claim, but it’s not difficult to defend. From the highly conceptual, otherworldly tasting menu at Vespertine in Culver City to the tooth-pick lamb at Chengdu Taste in Alhambra, restaurants are combining  attention to fresh, quality ingredients with an openness to experimentation bridging cultural traditions and techniques.

The possibilities seem endless.

Pasadena and its environs arrived somewhat belatedly to this raucous party, but there are now plenty of interesting options.  From chef-centric innovation to authentic and obscure ethnic preparations, we have a wide variety of local culinary choices. But what may still go unnoticed are offbeat dining experiences that can only be had in our area and exist quite apart from the relative tumult of the restaurant scene.   

You may need the right contacts and connections or just a good sense of timing, but the following culinary adventures can only be found right here in Arroyoland:

FRESHWATER DUMPLING AND NOODLE HOUSE

The Huntington’s Chinese Garden

One weekday morning a while back, my daughter and I were musing over breakfast possibilities. An enthusiast of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (where I maintain a basic membership), she had already expressed interest in visiting going posted her interest in visiting. Having recently discovered the Huntington’s newly renovated dining options, I suggested we try the dim sum place at the Chinese Garden. By then, the Huntington’s dining program had been redesigned and relaunched by Border Grill’s Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken in conjunction with Kajsa Alger, Feniger’s collaborator in the now-defunct Mud Hen Tavern and Blue Window. Freshwater specifically showcases Alger’s influence.

Arriving about 11 a.m., we strolled past the stately gallery buildings and arrived at Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle just as it was opening at 11:30. (Reservations are not accepted.) We ordered chicken-chive dumplings in broth, soothing chicken congee and a bowl of Hunan cumin-beef noodles at the small enclosed stand and then found a table overlooking the small placid lake, latticed with pale white bridges and the swooping roofs of copper-tiled pavilions. From the blooming lotuses to the bordering sweep of willow trees, the surrounds are landscaped as luxuriously as the rest of this famous, expansive former estate. More important, we noted that we were completely alone. A stillness settled over the lake as we unwrapped our chopsticks and marveled at our good fortune. We had the dining pavilion and patio on the lake completely to ourselves as we sampled our delicious selections.

Granted, it was an otherwise random weekday morning before any lunch rush. On weekends and holidays, this is a wildly popular spot where you can often expect to wait 20 minutes to order and find a table (though the food arrives swiftly). If you have a spare weekday morning, plan to arrive first thing and you just might experience a moment of idyllic dining solitude that can’t be found anywhere else.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Call (626) 405-2100 or visit huntington.org.

MAPLE

Descanso Gardens

Arroyoland is blessed with a profusion of lovely public gardens and parklands beyond the Huntington. From The Arboretum in Arcadia to Eaton Canyon to Descanso Gardens in La Caňada Flintridge, we have an impressive array of options for communing with nature. At Descanso, the onsite restaurant Maple offers culinary exploration along with a survey of the gardens’ flora in a recently renovated Craftsman farmhouse-style space.   

Part of the Patina Group portfolio, Maple is typically open only for weekend brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner service is occasional, with specially devised menus crafted throughout the year to correspond to seasonal garden displays and holidays, such as January’s annual Camellia Wine Dinner coinciding with the blossoming of Descanso’s signature blooms. The event featured a six-course dinner with custom wine pairings, and this month, Maple will host a Valentine’s Day dinner of wagyu beef and Maine lobster tail, among other entrees, from 5 to 9 p.m., and a Spring Blooms Wine Dinner on March 22. Additional upcoming dinners will be announced the website.

I attended a dinner celebrating Descanso’s Enchanted Forest of Light during the Christmas holiday season. Patina principal and San Marino resident Chef Joachim Splichal manned the stoves himself with Chef Philip Mack and recommended the whisky short rib entree, which was predictably velvety and delicious. Maple offers reliably imaginative menus in a beautiful natural refuge.

Descanso Gardens is located at 1418 Descanso Dr., La Caňada Flintridge.

Call (818) 949-4200 or visit mapleatdescanso.com

THE ATHENAEUM

California Institute of Technology

A mere stroll away from the bustling laboratories at one of the world’s great research universities, The Athenaeum is the private dining club at the Caltech in Pasadena. You have to be a faculty member, employee, student or alum to obtain membership. If you don’t qualify and are otherwise unlikely to be granted admission as a freshman anytime soon, find some members and implore them to escort you as a guest to the prime-rib buffet, a Wednesday evening institution at the elegant and storied dining room.

The history of the rib buffet tradition now seems obscure. General Manager Marisu Jimenez said in an email, “I have been at the club for 25 years and the buffet has been at the club before my time. I do not know, unfortunately, how the prime rib night got started.” Chef Kevin Issacson, who has been at “The Ath” for the last 13 years, provides novelty to the well-worn Wednesday tradition while doing an admirable job of keeping all the regular lunch and dinner menus fresh.

The buffet is lavish. Besides the carving station and changing selection of side dishes and other entrees, there is a generous selection of salads and cheese plates, as well as a raw bar of fresh oysters, shrimp and crab legs. A sushi station features a selection of nigiri, rolls and sashimi as well as seaweed salad. A chef’s specialty station changes weekly and might feature anything from customized risotto to pasta or mashed potatoes. The dessert bar includes a variety of pastries, cakes and pies as well as a bananas Foster station, where the dish is prepared to order, flambéed, of course.

Exclusive? Yes.

An utterly unique local experience? Yes.

Worth the trouble of stalking a hapless local scientist?  Again, yes!

The Athenaeum is located at 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 395-8200 or

visit athaneaum.caltech.com.

DELUXE 1717 TEST KITCHEN

Pasadena

Longtime observers of the local restaurant scene may recall the impressive run of Chef Onil Chibás at Elements and Elements Kitchen, a seven-year venture that pioneered true chef-centric cuisine next door to the Pasadena Playhouse, ultimately leading to Chibas’ recent experiment in catering and events. Last June, Chibas opened Deluxe 1717 on Washington Boulevard in Pasadena with the intention of maintaining his booming catering operations, while exploring the possibility of hosting or curating culinary events in the location’s storefront dining room and patio area.   

“I don’t want to do a pop-up every month,” says Chibas, who lives in Garfield Heights. “It’s too much work.” What then?

“I’ve always had the idea for a cookbook club. This is supposed to be … my [culinary] home!” The dining room accommodates 16 guests and, with the ample kitchen in back, the space offers all sorts of creative possibilities. “I didn’t want it to be a restaurant. It’s me cooking… maybe four or five courses.” Chibas ‘philosophy? “I tend to like rustic or homey fare presented elegantly. I call it Grandma Chic!”.

When can we join him at the table?

“I don’t know. Whenever I feel like it. It’s very capricious.”   

So stay tuned to his website or pitch an idea yourself. The point is that one of the very best chefs in town has a test kitchen and dining room that promise some very unusual culinary moments.

Deluxe 1717 is located at 1717 Washington Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 818-3963 or visit chibasevents.com.