Five Sixty-One is the flagship restaurant of the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. We joined a couple of Hounds there for a special dinner last Friday and were uniformly BLOWN AWAY. I will confess to a little trepidation going in...I feared it would be sort of like going to a barber college for a haircut. Nope. The occasion was the brief return to California of their former Executive Chef, Kyle Connaughton, from 2 years in Japan before he goes to England for an executive position at The Fat Duck. The exact 14 course menu (plus 6 amuses) at $115 pp ++ that we had is unlikely to be repeated but since Kyle appeared to be involved more in the concept and creation of the menu (we didn't see him actually manning the stoves but he was supervising) and the execution was by the Staff and students of the restaurant I think the dinner is a good barometer of what can be expected from this place.
The space is great: smallish, perhaps 10 tables. It's housed in a renovated brick building with large windows, unfinished brick walls and subdued lighting. The service was top notch, the students working under the direction of senior students and their instructors. Water constantly filled. Place settings just so. Delivery and removal of plates quite proper. The wine service was excellent, the stemware very good. We brought our own wines but I'm told that the wine pairing that was offered with the dinner at $60 was a rip-off. The wine list is fairly comprehensive and mostly fairly priced.
The six amuses were themed around fresh herbs and were designed to explore the influence of aroma on taste. Six spoons were presented with a sprig of herb wired onto the handle. I had a vision of baby chefs in the prep kitchen tediously wiring these sprigs onto the spoons, taking care to fold the ends of the wire back so no diner would puncture his/her finger on a sharp end. The idea is to crush the herb with your fingers and inhale the scent while eating the stuff in the bowl of the spoon. By gosh, it works. Tarragon was paired with Pacific snapper cured in tarragon salt with a fava bean puree and a cold bearnaise. Basil had a spiny lobster tail poached in tomato water, an opal basil paste and a dwarf tomato stuffed with olive oil sorbet. Parsley came with a griled cepe pickeled with pork hock and its marrow and parsified bread crumbs. Thyme paired with potted rabbit and glazed purple and red snap carrots, softened lavosh and flowering lemon thyme. Sage had spit-roasted snails on sage branches, milk-poached garlic and a proscuitto/sage paste. Finally, rosemary had a cold beef tenderloin carpaccio grilled over rosemary embers, salt roasted fingerlings, crunchy dried olive, raw milk chevre and a poached quail egg. These disappeared in less time than they should have, as we were so impressed with the presentation and the extraordinary flavor combinations. The crushing of herbs really did add another dimension to the food.
First course - Hokkaido scallop shshimi with an iced shiso veil in clear dashi extract, shiso blossoms and small lettuces. The scallop was exquisite and paired nicely with the Asian ingredients.
Second course - Cold asparagus soup with Dungeness crab, green asparagus mousse, pastry leaves and soft quail egg. The crab was pretentiously described as "before the summer molting" but was nevertheless delicious. A wonderful combination.
Third course - 3 foie gras preparations: salt-cured torchon of duck FG with a gelee of hibiscus and fennel pollen. Seared duck FG with Romanian beets, watercress and horseradish crackers. Cold terrine of goose FG with Persian mulberries, preserved angelica root and pain d'epices. For me, this last was the clear winner. But then again, I prefer goose to duck FG.
Fourth course was a salad of baby veggies, roots, sprouts, herbs and flowers with a vinegrette, raspberry, I think. The low point of the meal for me.
Fifth course - This one was over the top. A pea risotto with a pea cream, pea tendrils, and a huge Santa Barbara spot prawn, rare, in a mint-orange butter fondue. The head was fried crispy (think sushi bar) and dusted with a sweet orange and mint powder. This was unbelievably good. I was lucky enough to get a female so I got a surprise of tasty roe.
Sixth course was a lemon verbena tea with lemon balm and lemon grass with some Mt. Baldy honey ice to keep it cold. This was cleverly presented in a shot glass in which the tea had been poured and the glass frozen on an angle so that there was this wedge of ice down one side of the glass with the tea on the other side. A good refresher.
Seventh course was steamed sablefish with squash blossoms and heirloom tomatoes in a vinegrette, with yama udo, spring onions, a sorrel emulsion, chrysanthemum and fresh yuzu. By this time we were getting pretty full but it was delicious.
The eighth course was interesting (you know what's coming...). It was braised blood sausage sauteed in a squid casing (the body), a quinoa porridge, shellfish broth, a small roast tomato and black sugar. The blood sausage was tasty but the combination didn't work for any of us.
Ninth course - Slices of spiced lamb loin served on hot stones (we had to be careful about overcooking these) with a fig and medjool date chutney wrapped in pastry sticks. This course was titled "sticks and stones." Wonderful lamb, good but not phenom chutney.
Tenth course rivaled the risotto. It was a whole Maui onion, hollowed out and poached in olive oil and stuffed with braised veal cheeks. This was gratineed with a croute of black truffle on a salsify puree with goat's milk creme fraiche and whipped parsley juice (had to get some foam in there somewhere, I suppose). The combination of the onion and the veal was heavenly.
Eleventh course started the downhill slide into desserts. I'm not a big sweets fan, prefering instead cheese and fruits, but I'll admit that these were pretty good. Really sweet, but good. Churned lilac milk and lilac wisps on coriander short crusts.
Twelve - A meyer lemon pudding with condensed milk (which made it all the richer), in a pastry baton with a preserved lemon confit, white and black sesame blancmange and a soy milk-sesame ice cream.
Thirteen, clearly the favorite of the table, was a duo of chocolate and hazelnut ice creams. Dark chocolate and light hazelnut. Very rich and with a butterfat content that makes me shudder. So smooth, these had only been frozen once.
Fourteen was called "the gray area between black and white" and was a trio of chocolate patties, dark, white and one made with Earl Gray tea. This last had an unusual and delicious, almost refreshing, flavor.
We arrives at 6:00 and waddled out at 10:15, happy as clams. As I suspect that the "Chef" had little input into the actual preparation of the dishes, we'll definately be back. The regular menu, which appears to change seasonally, lists dishes as unusual as those above. The prices are quite reasonable (think barber college) with starters in the $10 to $15 range and no main over $30.