Bistro 561 is the restaurant operated by the students (and some professional staff) at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. The prix fixe offered last night was really special - normally the restaurant is not even open on Saturdays and Sundays. However, it may open on Saturdays in a couple of months according to our server (who was not in fact a student but rather sort of a server supervisor/trainer who works with the students).
We arrived on time for our 8:30 reservation and were seated about 10 minutes later which is pretty good for V-Day. Upon being seated we were handed the one page menu and asked whether we wanted to do the wine pairing - the wines were also listed with each course (of course we said yes to the wine!). The menu was $60 and the wine pairing an additional $25. The mandatory offering of the various types of water then ensued.
Next, we were given complimentary glasses of champagne. A basket with three types of warm bread, all made by the students, soon arrived along with some unsalted butter shaped into a cute little heart and a separate crock of sea salt.
Amuse - minted citrus with heirloom tomatoes and 25 year old balsamic vinegar. Nice balance of flavors and textures.
Each subsequent course contained two items on each plate - in fact, the entire menu was titled "A Coupling" and this theme carried through up to dessert.
First - (1) warm spinach salad, applewood bacon vinaigrette, foie gras croutons and ricotta salata; (2) spinach soup with a white truffle creme fraiche. Wine: Pinot Blanc, St. Innocent, Willamette Valley '02
Second - (1) ahi tuna tartare, avocado mousse (molded with the tuna on the bottom, then the "mousse" which was more like chopped avocados, not smooth, but tasty) topped with some small cilantro leaves and stems, with dabs of passion fruit coulis around; (2) seared tuna in two small pieces atop two slices of sushi roll containing tempura rock shrimp and jalapeno. Wine: Reisling, Pacific Rim, Bonny Doon, Santa Cruz '02.
Both the above wines matched the food really well, and the second was good enough to go out and buy. That's saying a lot because we tend to prefer red wine over white.
Intermezzo - a shotglass of a blood orange and tangerine frappe - yummy.
Third - (1) a seared scallop atop a beautifully garnet colored beet puree with a tangerine reduction; (2) a scallop "Wellington" with mushroom duxelle and foie gras jus. In the latter, the pastry was a bit heavy but the flavors were luxurious. Wine: Chardonnay, Murphy-Goode, Sonoma County '01. I'm not a big chardonnay fan, but this one wasn't too oaky and it didn't overpower the scallops.
Fourth - (1) braised short ribs - shreds of the meat atop mascarpone polenta and a horseradish foam - excellent; (2) two slices of charred rare filet mignon atop "stuffed potato pirogues". The horseradish foam was similar to but more subtle than the fabulous horseradish cream served with the short ribs at Lucques. Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Bogle, Sonoma County '01. The cab matched the food really well.
Fifth (cheese) - (1) a little round pastry encasing a bit of chevre, with caramelized onions on top; (2) a small slice, about a bite, of Humboldt Fog. Wine: Zinfandel, Rancho Zabaco, Sonoma County '01. I wasn't thrilled with this wine.
Pre-dessert: sugared champagne gelee with some pink grapefruit sorbet.
Dessert: on a plate with a pretty sugared rose in the middle: a slice of chocolate tart; chocolate sorbet; two chocolate truffles; two chocolate-covered strawberries; palmier with chocolate mousse on it. I didn't really get the concept of the palmier with the chocolate mousse but the mousse tasted fine. Godiva chocolate liqueur was the "wine" match for this course.
Overall, we were very pleased with the food as well as the wine matches and felt it was a good value as these things go. (I should add that I took a lot of classes at this school a couple of years ago when they still had their non-pro classes, so I feel a little bit connected to the school and I'm probably predisposed to not be very critical.) Ladies were all presented with a single long-stemmed red rose at the same time as the gentlemen got the check. I don't know what they would have done with same-sex couples!
Bistro 561 is located at 561 East Green Street, Pasadena, 626-405-1561. Reservations can also be made through Open Table. Currently the restaurant is offering, in addition to the regular menu, 9 course tasting menus at dinner on Thursdays and Fridays for $49, and 9 course tasting menus at lunch on Thursdays and Fridays for $24(!). They have a full bar. I think we'll make a return visit soon and check it out under normal operating circumstances.