A New Dining Genre
Noir’s fine wines and great food combine for a dynamic dining experience
By Erica Wayne 08/04/2011
Wow! A 15-pager! Noir’s beautifully annotated wine list has to be a major draw for Southern California oenophiles. Pasadena sure has come a long, long way in the past 30 years. (Does anybody out there remember the ’70s, when the only impressive wine list in our little backwater was the one at The Chronicle?) Of course, there are those who know Noir co-owner Mike Farwell from his past creations — including Red Carpet Wine Bar in Glendale, Restaurant Halie’s Wine Bar 112 and Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena — and aren’t at all surprised by the quality and quantity of the vintages featured.
True foodies know that a Zagat “Best New Restaurant in LA” award two years in a row is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s expected by those of us who have experienced the expertise of Noir partner Claud Beltran’s cuisine at any one of a number of our area’s more interesting restaurants — e.g., Checkers, Dickenson West, Halie, Cayo, Madeleine’s — during the past couple of decades.
The teaming of these two makes for a highly dynamic and ambitious enterprise. Wines change; menus change. Even the interior and exterior design of the restaurant has changed over the past two years as the original space (think of past denizens Super Antojitos, Scampi and Aun Deli) has undergone successive surgeries to include a 12-seat bar and a VERY intimate “wine room.” The rear “yard” has been transformed into a charming outside patio, complete with rocky waterfall, ficus, banana plants and ferns. This makeover seems to have just about doubled Noir’s seating capacity, and a strategically placed full-length mirror makes the patio appear even larger!
Aside from the usual expected “good” food and drink, Noir has some fun stuff for its clientele, chief among which is its three-wine flights. We choose from “MADMAN” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs ($23), World Pinot Noir ($12), Cote du Rhone ($11), World Rose ($9), World Sauvignon Blancs ($10) and New World Chardonnay ($12) which, oddly enough, includes Burgundian and South African selections with a sole California companion. The four of us are able to sample nine pleasant wines along with one 750 mL. bottle of a creamy, heavy malt Maredsous 8 (Belgian) amber beer ($13).
Additionally, there’s a tapas-like menu of fromage, charcuterie and snacks. Although our server appears to have intimate knowledge of each of the 18 cheeses, we are glad to see tiny portraits of sheep, cows or goats to the left of each variety on the list. We’re sitting outside, where the early evening sun allows us to differentiate the droll little images but wonder what the diners in the rich but dark interior spaces are able to discern.
Since a sampler of three cheeses costs $11 and a sample of six costs $18, we spring for the “bargain” and get a small sextet accompanied by crostini (not nearly enough but, eventually, our server offers to bring more), a dab of preserved quince, a smattering of spiced walnuts, a soupcon of honey and two tiny squares of compressed fig “bread,” which I could have consumed entirely without batting an eyelash.
We then proceed to give our attention the rest of our meal. Two salads, one heirloom beet ($8), the other baby romaine ($10), arrive first. The romaine, with slices of perfectly ripened avocado and a tangy cilantro cotija (cheese) vinaigrette, is quite pleasing; the beet, all yellow and almost as tasteless as sliced potato, is less so. Its roasted garlic dressing and parmesan mousse are, alas, hardly up to the task of augmentation. Too bad.
Once the salads are out of the way, the “real” food arrives. A filet of seared red trout ($20) with mild curried Israeli couscous and raita sauce is super; seared scallops ($19) with heirloom cherry tomato salad and parsley puree are appropriately delicate; crab fritters ($13), golf ball-sized crab cakes with a muted black pepper aioli and a zingy Carolina mustard dipping sauce, are just fine and the “Farwell” burger ($13) on ciabatta, seasoned with tarragon, caramelized onions, remoulade and melted emmental, is damn good. The crisp shoestring fries sharing the plate go right down, too.
Of course, we can’t ignore Noir’s sides, which all sound delicious: haricot vert ($8) with plenty of butter, garlic and shallots along with a lively jolt of fresh mint is our favorite by far. Unfortunately, shishito peppers ($9) sautéed in ginger, garlic, soy and sesame are way too salty; and parmesan cheese grits ($8) are quite runny, almost soup-like, although their flavor is good. One of Noir’s specialties is seared foie gras ($22) with apricots and passion fruit sauce, but we feel we must eschew it for humanitarian reasons.
There are delightful desserts at Noir, all $8, and had we not finished every morsel on every plate (except for the dregs of peppers and grits), we would have liked to sample at least some of the sorbets (especially blood orange, blackberry-cabernet and coconut), the cinnamon gelato and the stone fruit cobbler with lemon verbena whipped cream. Chocolate terrine with crème anglaise is a traditional French favorite; and my guess is nobody who’s tried Bananas Foster in New Orleans can easily turn it down again. Nevertheless, we leave the restaurant sated but sweetless and still only barely able to squeeze past the wine-room diners on our path to the door.