Shine on

Shine on

Café Bizou comes of age on North Raymond Avenue

By Erica Wayne 09/04/2013

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When I first reviewed Café Bizou, it was the newest jewel on North Raymond Avenue’s restaurant row. Now, 13 years later, it still commands a loyal clientele. Built on the former site of the highly hyped Cafe Jacoulet, Tra Fiori and Papashon, the restaurant has certainly held its own with its prestigious (but in the case of the latter two, much shorter-lived) predecessors.

The décor — used brick and mustard yellow walls, light and dark woods, wonderful turn-of-the-last-century posters, including my favorite Steinlen Chat Noir — is immensely appealing. More importantly, the plethora of cozy booths that line the walls allow for intimate dining. Even the tables at the front of the north (bar) and south dining areas are spaced far enough apart to allow for private conversations.

Three of us took advantage of this summer’s dineLA extravaganza to splurge on the three-course lunch Café Bizou was offering for the amazingly low price of $15 (about half what the same meal would cost ordered a la carte from the regular menu). We weren’t the only ones. When we arrived, the restaurant was full to overflowing. Nevertheless, we were seated within five minutes. Bread and water came promptly, another good sign.

We tried all three of the offered appetizers: pleasant onion soup with a fragrant broth and plenty of onions, but no crouton and a pallid topping of under-browned gruyere; coyly capped baked mushrooms stuffed with chicken and spinach mousse with a balsamic vinegar sauce and an endive leaf cupping some tangy romesco as garnish; and (the winner) sinfully creamy, tomato-tinged lobster bisque, clearly tasting of the sea.

For our entrees, we selected a prime rib burger, six ounces of good ground beef with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, tomato and horseradish mayo on a brioche bun with shoestring Cajun fries. Black tagallini pasta was topped with chunks of lobster, sea scallops and shrimp, tossed with tomatoes and mushrooms in a lobster sauce. And tuna nicoise salad came with tomato, halved boiled new potato, green beans, wedges of hard-cooked egg and native nicoise olives in a Dijon sherry wine vinaigrette.

Of the burger, there were few complaints. The meat came as ordered — medium rare. The bun was pretty but nondescript. However, it served perfectly well as a holder for the thick patty and all the unctuous toppings. As for the fries, the fingers of those of us who had ordered the pasta and salad were constantly reaching for them and I was surprised that the original recipient didn’t use his fork to guard them from the assault.
The pasta too was well received. Perhaps the seafood was a tad overcooked, but the noodles were delicious and the sauce creamy and delicate without being at all bland, with al dente mushrooms and tomato chunks an excellent addition. This dish also was the recipient of repeated visits from neighboring utensils.

Unfortunately, I (who had chosen the nicoise salad) was disappointed. The tuna was seared and plentiful, but somehow its flavor didn’t hold up against the cloyingly sweet dressing. I wonder if the more traditional canned tuna might have countered it more effectively. Nicoise salads most often include capers (which I rarely miss) and anchovies (which I do, and did!) and come dressed with a more suitable tart lemon or red wine and oil vinaigrette.  

Desserts soon set my mood aright. Again, we were able to sample all three: a dense flourless chocolate cake (on a bed of crème anglaise and strawberry puree) with a dusting of powdered sugar and a glob of whipped cream on the side; a good tiramisu, similarly bedded in crème and puree and tasting strongly of espresso; and a “duo” of intense mango and raspberry sorbets.

I was amazed, in looking over my original review, to find that almost everything we sampled back then is still on Café Bizou’s menu with exactly the same descriptions, indicating both proven quality and good value. Back in 2000, I gave reasonably high marks to the Caesar salad and one of our entrees: sesame-coated salmon with (mashed) potato pancakes, mushrooms and a deep purple (almost blackberry-toned) burgundy wine sauce (now $15.95).

I raved about another: New York steak au poivre with brandy cream sauce, French fries and asparagus ($17.95), perfectly cooked — not a lot of pepper — with a sauce that tasted as if it might contain a touch of mustard or sour cream. The fries were of the crisp, shoestring variety — as they are today — and, were it not for an inconsequential bunch of asparagus, the platter would have been quintessential Parisian “steak-frites” with a meat upgrade.

Another plus for Cafe Bijou after 13 years in Pasadena is its continuing generous policies regarding soup, salad and wine. For only $1, diners can get a cup of soup or a Romaine salad with honey/mustard dressing with their entrees. For a mere $2 corkage fee, you can raid your own wine cellar (no limit on the number of bottles) and avoid the (relatively modest) markup on Cafe Bijou’s list. And, next time you take advantage of this bargain, be sure to raise a glass to Café Bizou’s continued success.

Café Bizou
91 N. Raymond Ave.,
Pasadena
(626) 792-9923
cafebizou.com
Full bar/Major cards

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