Try this place every few years and it seems to keep getting better.
You feel for a moment like you're in France. Subdued intimate main room with several adjoining rooms. The requisite banquette was never occupied - everyone was at their own table. That rarest of all pleasures - armchairs at every table. 40ish dignified Pasadena ladies at a birthday table; a couple at the next table speaking Spanish - man in what seemed to be a $3000 suit and stylishly dressed partner. Stock broker meeting at a large table in the center - very subdued - with lots of angst about oil prices. Excellent acoustics - never had to raise our voices. Baroque music at pleasant levels.
Tonight the "Rabelais Tasting Menu" was unexpectedly good, especially in comparison to recent Pasadena forays.
Amuse was a little wierd - delicate crab in a creme brulee with a pesto garnish that had the unmistakable essence of vinegar. And it was warm to heighten the strangeness. It was an announcement that this will not be a commonplace meal.
First course - scallops seared hot enough that the crust is carmelized to a distinct sweetness and the centers are what seems to be the chef's trademark creamy texture. Unusual fennel salad underlayment. Smoked salmon - a revelation. About an inch thick, one slice. Every bite is different; granules of salt, areas of sweetness, smoky accents to the dense warm salmon. Better than watching a bottle of good bordeaux unfold over time.
Second course - a strange squash puree soup (cold) with explosively flavorful mexican shrimp. Duck confit ravioli - nothing special in the ravioli but an exquisite accompainement of sweet roasted corn hieghtened by a slightly pickled cabbage. I've never had corn taste so fresh and interesting, obviously the result of the inspired cabbage counterpoint.
Third course - there was the choice of a steak with some sort of mushroom coulis, but no one got it because of the seafood performance level here. Sea bass with a carmelized crust and creamy center. I can't even remember what it came with because the flavor of the fish was so compelling and the texture so perfect.
Desserts - ice cream with fruit compote in an elegant hard shell, overlain by a woven carmel basket. The neighboring tables all stopped talking to watch it go by. Also, a steamed chocolate concoction that I didn't have the endurance to try. They apparently have a full time dessert chef.
Wines are reasonable, but undistinguished. ~$10 per glass for very food friendly Sancerre and Vouvray. Servicable by the glass chards and ho hum reds, also averaging around$10.
Service is unexpectedly competent and attentive. Chef came out and despite the broken English, was willing to discuss the preparations when asked.
Prix fixe $48 per person - you can get other tasting menus for up to $100 per; wines about $10 per glass. Total $90 per person with tax and tip.
A great night out in Pasadena would be a visit to the wine bar at Halie - about 4 blocks to the east, then a leisurely food tour at Akira.