By Frier McCollister
When The Arbour opened in December 2017, the biggest unexpected challenge confronting owners Chef Ian Gresik and his wife, Nancy, was scheduling the final round of permitting and health department inspections.
Nothing, however, prepared the Gresiks for the pandemic reality in March 2020.
The Arbour’s relatively quiet opening on the relatively quiet block of South Lake actually resounded loudly in the local fine dining community. The dining room’s sunny, sophisticated ambiance combined with the classically refined farm-to-table menu added a bit of fresh depth and dimension to the local scene. It’s a welcome new option for discriminating gourmands cruising the strip on South Lake.
It also turns out there’s a South Lake connection here.
“Before The Arbour, I was the executive chef at a restaurant called Drago Centro, Downtown,” Gresik said. “It’s in the financial district. It’s a high-end Italian restaurant that I ran for eight years. It’s owned by Celestino Drago. His brother owns Celestino’s on Lake (in Pasadena).
“I still keep in contact with him quite a bit and some of the staff members over there.”
In fact, The Arbour is located four blocks south of Celestino’s.
Although Gresik is a South Bay native, growing up in Torrance and Redondo Beach, he has a longer tether to Pasadena.
“I was introduced to Pasadena in about the year 2000, when I went to culinary school here at the Cordon Bleu,” he said. “And I lived out here for a time and then I kind of bounced around a little bit. (In 2015), I decided when it was time to settle down with my wife and family to move back to Pasadena.”
He and Nancy recently moved with their two young daughters, ages 5 and 2, to Sierra Madre. They’re still in the neighborhood.
Gresik’s time at the Cordon Bleu school served as the equivalent of graduate school. He had already completed a two-year program in baking and pastry at Cerritos College.
“I’m a formally trained bakery and pastry chef,” he said. “That’s sort of how I broke into the field. I was down in San Diego working at a few places and then I decided to go back to the Cordon Bleu.”
After his second round of culinary training, Gresik landed with an important and influential mentor.
“Before Drago, I spent seven years with Joachim Splichal of the Patina Group at the original Patina on Melrose and then at the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” he said.
He worked with, arguably, the best French chef and the best Italian chef in town, he added.
The family’s move to Pasadena sparked inspiration. He thought Pasadena needed another restaurant.
“We thought our style of food would play well here,” Gresik said. “We went ahead and built out a restaurant. We’re in the old building that used to be Express clothing. We did a full build-out. It was 11 months from start to finish.”
The time and effort paid off. The dining room exudes a casual elegance that is further reflected in Gresik’s menu and cooking.
“The culinary inspiration behind The Arbour is just utilizing the bounty of California,” he said.
“From the local produce to the meat purveyors, I would say 90% of our product is organic. It’s farm to table.”
Working with small farms, most out of Ventura County, the pandemic reality has inevitably affected these relationships as well. Pre-pandemic, The Arbour regularly engaged with 20 to 30 farms for its fresh produce, helping sustain the farmers. “Now it’s about a dozen,” Gresik said. “Now they take care of us.”
Perusing the menu, which has been slightly abbreviated during the pandemic, Gresik points to popular favorites. For starters, the bacon tart ($13) baked in puff pastry with onion and served with béchamel sauce, parmesan and wild greens is a standout. Perhaps a bit more on the farm-to-table theme is the shaved brussels sprout salad ($14) with fresh goat cheese and toasted pine nuts tossed in a white wine vinaigrette. There’s also a classic Caesar ($13) on the menu and a beet salad with baby lacinato kale and golden raisins with a lemon vinaigrette and hazelnut dust ($13).
Popular entrees include the sophisticated comfort of bucatini in vodka sauce ($25) with ground pancetta, tomato cream and parmesan. There’s also sea bass with polenta cake, roasted fennel, baby bok choy, celery root puree and lemon foam ($35).
One of Gresik’s signature dishes is the duo of duck ($38), which features roasted duck breast with a leg confit served with peppercorn sauce, parsnip puree, baby turnips and spinach. There are also weekly specials. Recently, it was roasted rack of lamb with spiced couscous, fresh peppers, chickpeas, green onions and salsa verde ($49).
The specials include takeout custom cocktails to-go.
“It’s one of the other key things that helped,” Gresik said.
“It was relatively easy for us. Our lead bartender, Nick Christianson, doubles as a waiter.”
Gresik is also quick to credit Mathew Haro, his chef de cuisine in the kitchen.
“He deserves a lot of kudos for being flexible,” he said. “I give him a lot of credit. We’ve been working together for 10 years. You see the true colors of people in a crisis.”
Reflecting on the unexpected turns of the pandemic, Gresik said his independent restaurant is nimble enough to make it. He pivoted immediately to take-out and winnowed his staff from 50 to seven.
“We rolled with all the punches,” Gresik said. “Our strategy has been defense. We’d rather have a smaller footprint and be safe. And still be relevant and still serve our guests quality food.”
He added The Arbour was lucky enough get PPP loans for the first and second rounds. That was a huge relief.
“It doesn’t guarantee our livelihood or success, if you look at how it works,” Gresik said. “It’s eight weeks. But I will say, I’m very pleased with the city of Pasadena. The new mayor, Victor Gordo, he’s behind business.”
With outdoor dining allowed and in full swing, The Arbour has five tables placed out front that can accommodate up to 16 guests. Now largely working front-of-house, Gresik is likely to greet his guests and seat them on arrival. Fortunately, he’s managed to attract a loyal cadre of fans. About 80% of his to-go orders are repeat guests.
“It’s pretty impressive,” he said. “Our clientele comes weekly or more and offers their support. I’ve been a chef for over 20 years. It’s my first time being a waiter. Thank you to our patrons.”