No mere mirage
Cool surroundings offer a warm and rewarding welcome at Oasis
By Erica Wayne 06/20/2013
O n the arid site of the late (not terribly lamented I’m afraid) Roxolana on South Raymond Avenue, a new and already thriving restaurant has blossomed. And although I wouldn’t exactly characterize the surrounding area as a diner’s desert, Oasis Café does provide a welcome spot to relax and sample some refreshing new items in restaurant cuisine.
As the restaurant’s Web site states, the menu “features fresh, sophisticated dishes inspired by local farmers’ markets. With an emphasis on seasonality, we are proud to partner with our local vendors who allow us to provide the freshest ingredients in our dishes.”
From the name Oasis, I was expecting a verdant interior, loaded with potted palms, low tables with colorful cushions and perhaps a fountain. Maybe even a fake camel or two (like the full-sized Holstein that once welcomed entrants to Pasadena’s Market City Caffe and still greets customers in Burbank). However, Oasis instead soothes its guests with a sleek, minimalist gray and white interior and cool jazz in the background.
But if the surroundings are cool, the welcome is definitely warm. On our visit last week, only a month after the restaurant’s opening, servers seemed happy to cater and eager to please. Water and iced tea were refilled without asking, and each of the three courses we ordered came to the table without too much lag time, but also without our feeling in any way rushed. While Oasis awaits finalization of its beer and wine license, it has a liberal BYOB policy with no corkage fees. Lovely!
All those favorite foodie words dot the menu: black leaf kale, marcona almonds, pork belly, burrata, arugula, confit, heirloom, mesclun, farro, meyer lemon, pig’s ears and many others. But they’re not there just to impress. It’s obvious that the kitchen genie is capable of creations containing ingredients that don’t just sound good but blend to make a whole even better than the sum of the parts.
Take our salads, for instance. Farro (the up-and-coming grain of the moment, even trendier than quinoa), chewy wheat berries, combined with a colorful hash of feta cheese, cucumber, red onion, mint, nicoise olives and a red wine vinaigrette ($7.95) is captivating visually and texturally, with flavors as vibrant as its hues.
Ditto for the beet salad: chunks of dark purple and lighter red, set on a mix of watercress and arugula with a sprinkling of feta, a handful of crunchy toasted hazelnuts and a light douse of lemon and oil.
Appetizers include some standards raised above average by their prep. We skipped trendier choices, like pig ears with creamy mustard and crème fraiche ($7.95); pork belly with molasses, mustard and watermelon radish ($6.95); and burrata de Stefano with garlic toast and arugula pesto ($6.95), opting instead for fried calamari with spicy aioli ($7.95). This cluster of small rings and delicate tentacles was tempura-light, seasoned with plenty of garlic, salt and chopped jalapeno chilies, a tangle of shredded green onion on top. Two or three wedges of lemon sat perched on the rim of the plate. Though the dip was tasty, it was completely superfluous. The squidlets were perfect without it.
Hanger steak is one of the “in” meats these days. Oasis’ version ($22.95) is a simple one, a hefty portion of grilled meat served with confit (slow-fried) potato — large chunks, crisp outside and creamy inside because of the cooking method. A few emerald stalks of broccoli rabe (rapini) brighten the plate and a cup of (in our opinion, too) mild horseradish crème fraiche accompanies the dish.
Our pedigreed (Mary’s Farm) duck breast ($22.95) was cooked Asian style — crisp golden skin and fork-tender meat, but with a thick layer of fat unrendered between the two. Like pork belly, this is a style of meat you either like or hate. My husband, a Jack Sprat, preferred his lean rare beef. I was quite happy to devour the duck, basted with the lightest of cherry-vinegar glaze and bedded on a dollop of creamy parsnip puree and smoky pan-sautéed mustard greens.
The dessert list is appealing: petit brownie with berries and crème fraiche ($7), churros and hot chocolate ($6.50), caramel cream pudding-chocolate wafer crumble ($7.50) and strawberry cream puff ($4) among them. We shared kalamansi meringue pie ($6) after requesting a translation from our server. Kalamansi (calamondin), it turns out, is a hybrid citrus prevalent in the Philippines. Like a kumquat, it has a sweet peel and sour pulp. And it sure makes a great dessert. The diminutive pastry filled a two-by-two glass jar, with a tart, sunshine-yellow custard sandwiched between a vanilla cookie crust and a magnificent crown of expertly browned, ornately swirled marshmallowy meringue. This little beauty was a perfect finale to our meal.
Like ourselves, about half the people in the crowd were taking advantage of a Travelzoo online coupon, which entitled purchasers to a dinner for two (two salads, one appetizer, two entrees and one dessert) for just under $40 — a real bargain. If it ever appears again, you should rush to buy it. But even had we paid full price, we would not have been disappointed. After only one sitting, we’ve put Oasis Café at the top of our recent dining experiences. It’s a restaurant that’s too good to miss, so don’t.