A Mediterranean Mélange
Kal’s Mediterranean Bistro embraces culinary influences from throughout the region.
By Bradley Tuck 06/03/2013
June might mean gloom to some, but here in Pasadena, there’s nothing gloomy about the wining and dining scene. This month, look for a new arrival, a huge food event and some new drinks at an Arroyo favorite. Here are all the details you need to keep your taste buds busy and buzzing.
When Kal and Justina Al Maleh arrived in the U.S. from Damascus, Syria, last September, they knew that they wanted to open a restaurant. The couple searched for a location and concept that would stand out from the saturated market of similar Middle Eastern restaurants and decided to open a bistro with a menu touring the countries that rim the Mediterranean basin. It’s an extremely diverse range of cuisines from which to pull influences, and yet they have some common threads. The history of the Mediterranean is one of small seafaring states roving its waters, both as merchants and invaders, bringing their foods with them and later returning home with foods they’d discovered. Chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans), for instance, turn up as hummus in the Middle East, but in the southeast of France, they take the form of panisse, deep-fried logs of chickpea purée. In Gibraltar, they emerge as the national dish, calentita, a sort of flat, oven-roasted cake that used to be sold in slices on the street from a giant pan carried on the vendor’s shoulder.
At Kal’s Mediterranean Bistro, which opened in May, Executive Chef Steven Lona, formerly of Bistro 45, presents a menu that reflects the season, with a strong emphasis on the correct vegetables and salads for the time of year. The meat-averse will find plenty here to keep them happy. There’s a meaty-looking, but totally vegetarian Portobello mushroom with polenta, little onions and gremolata, a meld of lemon zest, garlic and parsley ($15). A tabbouleh is made with the leaf du jour — kale — and parsley, mint, bulghur wheat, tomato and lemon vinaigrette ($8). If you’re in the mood for fish, New Zealand grouper comes with a quinoa-lentil hash, greens and a parsley sauce ($27).
A particularly interesting component of this restaurant is the drinks menu furnished by L.A. cocktail star Matthew Biancaniello, who garnered a big following at The Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar with his farmers’ market produce–driven menu. He has gone a step further now, foraging for wild seasonal ingredients in the Santa Monica Mountains and Angeles National Forest. In the mountains near Pasadena he finds wild fennel and elderflowers; black, white and purple sage; cactus flowers, sweet clover and wild currants. He’s particularly fond of white mulberries, which taste like Granny Smith apples. He’s well known for his love of stinging nettles, infusing them into gin. Kal’s, however, doesn’t have a full liquor license, so he has worked with fermented wines and vermouths to create wonderful complex cocktails using his foraged produce.
How about a mochi-infused sake with bonito-flake syrup and yuzu citrus? Or a smoked-tomato Fino sherry with red bell peppers, scallions and cilantro flowers? That got your attention, didn’t it? Matthew will be at the bar on a weekly basis, changing the cocktails along with the seasons. Yes, East Coasters, there are seasons in California. We mark them in cocktails.
Speaking of an interesting journey in cocktails, here we are at 1886 Bar at The Raymond. Freshly open after a kitchen remodel, they have an original take on spring drinks to boot.1886 has always taken a very cerebral, considered approach, laced with a healthy dose of humor and irreverence. There’s always a great story behind the drinks dreamed up by Marcos Tello and the crew at the bar. The new menu is divided into four sections, a device that has served them well in the past. This time, the headings are “Soda Pop Shop,” “Study of Charles Baker,” “Time for Tea” and “Anatomy of a Meal.” For reasons of space (and because really delving into this menu merits a story on its own), let’s just talk about A Coke and a Smile — mixmaster Brady Weise’s cocktail in the Soda Pop Shop section. It’s a nod to Pasadena’s century-old Fair Oaks Pharmacy with its old-school soda fountain, and also to the fact that during Prohibition, many bartenders had to get jobs at soda fountains to keep the wolf from the door. Weise takes rye whiskey, Fernet-Branca Menta digestif, Galliano Ristretto liqueur, an egg and Mexican Coke, mixes it up, then strains it back into a classic Coke bottle. Andy Warhol famously said, “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money will buy you a better Coke.” Think again, Andy.
Back at the Rose Bowl on June 29 for its fourth consecutive year, the L.A. Street Food Fest is a great opportunity to taste a vast array of delicious street treats. It’s a month earlier than usual this year so that you don’t have to endure high summer’s blazing temperatures with your tacos. And there’ll be so much more than tacos — L.A. food truck favorites like The Grilled Cheese Truck, The Lobos Truck, Currywurst and Wicked Kitchen will be parked alongside offerings from event partner Taste of Mexico, so expect some incredible food from the likes of Frida, Guelaguetza and Corazon y Miél, Mexikosher, Lotería and a host of other restaurants. For the sweet of tooth, brace yourselves for the Ice Cream Social, which features a raft of dessert vendors, including cult favorites The Donut Snob and Peddler’s Creamery. There will be beer and cocktails for those of age, who’ll be provided with a wristband, and live music to keep everyone entertained. All-you-can-eat and drink tickets cost $50 and are available at eventbrite.com.