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Central Park Cafe, Pasadena

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Mrs. O took me out for my b-day last night (66, yikes!), and after looking for threads about bistros and the like I stumbled over one that reminded me about this place, which we had not gotten around to trying. We corrected that oversight, and are now damned glad we did; I'd been thinking about Bizou just because of things like sand dabs, and they are in our price range, but Central Park hit all these marks and did it better.

The man on the phone had said we'd need no reservation, but for a rainy Tuesday night the place was pretty busy. We got a table in the area near the front window, menus and wine list right away, recital of specials shortly thereafter. The flatiron steak leaped right out at me, as I'd never had one. Mrs. O had meant to have sand dabs, but the special of sole with grapes sounded too good, so she asked for that. Although she does not drink wine as a rule, there was a Spanish bubbly on the list, and we were celebrating here, so she asked for that. I requested a glass of the zinfandel. There was a gap here because the waiter had to go find the Spanish stuff, but he finally located some - it came in its own itty bitty bottle, maybe 6 oz. or so, which was about what I got, too. Not the most generous pour I've ever had, but what seems to be the standard nowadays. The bread was a too-soft but tasty kind of focaccia, served with a small dish of tapenade in warm oil that was very nice.

The steak was a marvel - maybe eight slices of precisely rare meat, in a perfectly-prepared reduction of wine and butter that tasted of nothing else, but only added to the lovely beefiness. This was laid over a very good gratin of potatoes in cream and gruyere. There were some extremely crunchy little green beans and carrots alongside, underdone even for Mr. Crisp here, but the flavors were good, and heaven knows with that melting steak my teeth needed something to do! The sole (called "Piccata" on the menu, but Escoffier says with grapes it's Veronique, so there) was a nice big piece of very good fish, and though I found the sweet edge a little odd its recipient loved it. Then we had to get a dessert, which was some kind of ice cream with white chocolate chunks and raspberry syrup (I think) that was insanely rich and pretty wonderful. I had maybe four spoonfuls and gladly let Mrs. O have all the rest. She was pleased with it, and also with the tab, which with her quite generous tip came to about $62. Merci, Tania...

Oh, and I must add that if you want to go here on a week night you need to make an early night of it - the manager came to the front window and turned off the sign at 8:55! What is it with Pasadena, anyway?

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  1. Great review! I frequent this place as I work in the area and golf on the weekends in Altadena. I know EXACTLY what you mean about the extremely crunchy vegetables - they seemed a little undercooked to me, too. For a price-to-quality ratio, I'm very happy with this place. Agree that the bread should be improved. Happy Birthday! Just don't retire from chowhound....

    2 Replies
    1. re: kotatsu

      Ha! In case you haven't guessed, I've retired INTO Chowhound!

      So the crunchy veges weren't a fluke, but a habit? That's something they should probably address. Al dente is pleasant, at least to me, but raw in the middle is not particularly, and a bit hard to eat besides.

      And by the way, I should have mentioned that the goo left on both our plates was so good we shamelessly used that puffy bread to mop it all up. Just hope I have the fortitude to order something different next visit...

      1. re: Will Owen

        I have the menu sitting right in front of me.... The tomato stack (caprese salad) is pretty good. Short ribs are tasty, but small. Grilled chicken caprese sandwich is excellent and the accompanying broccoli salad is better than it sounds. Had the dagwood burger once - it's ok. My co-worker had the calamari spinach salad and swears it's one of the best things she's had there, but I'm not much of a calamari guy.

        For breakfast, I think the ham & eggs are great.

    2. Hi Will - Happy Belated Birthday! We went for lunch last week and we ordered the coconut shrimp appetizer which was phenomenal (the best part of the meal, I'd say!). Four HUGE coconut shrimp served with a sweet sauce - maybe ginger something (wish I had a menu in front of me). My sandwich was pretty forgettable and my friend's salad had to be taken to go because she asked for extra dressing (and neglected to taste it before dumping it on her salad) which turned out to be buffalo wing sauce and the replacement took a long time to arrive. I would go back for those shrimp, though!! Service was okay, but I am starting to see a trend with waiters not writing down orders and I am not liking it very much. There always seem to be mistakes made when orders are not written down.

      1. You should really check out central park cafe again if you haven't been for awhile. I have been there three times already. They have a new chef in town since your last visit. Service has been phenomenal all three times! Their wine list and pairing is a must try. Their specials of the day are quite tasty. I would recommend the crab tower salad and stuffed chicken.The short ribs was also deliciously cooked. No more hard veggies! It's perfectly cooked now in all entrees! My waitress wrote down my order so no mistakes. Their pricing is fair and I love the free parking factor. Awesome atmostphere w/delicious food. I came out happy all three times. =)

        1. Honestly, this is the best eatery compared to all the rest in Pasadena, hands down! Not only did the food complete my experience...the whole ambience, service, and the welcoming environment! Not to mention, the service were incredibily friendly, the people that were around you were too!...you can tell, a lot of the locals go here. I'm sure they don't want to be around places where it's over-rated and crowed. Don't get me wrong, this place gets crowed itself and you'll need to make an appt before going on the weekends, but it's not as bad as waiting half an hour at cheesecake factory! And to top it off,having food that are award winning...you can't ask for more! Definitely a worth trying place to eat. Trust me, from someone that gives obscene critiques, this place is definitely worth it!

          4 Replies
          1. re: kaylov3

            Really? The best in all of Pasadena? Interesting. What awards have their food won?

            1. re: WildSwede

              My two cents - I've eaten there once but it was very good and worth a return trip. I think the thumbs up from fellow CH'ers is worth more than any award - I'd place a lot more reliance on what the folks on this board have to say.

              1. re: WildSwede

                Lot of the dishes tastes "award winning"..I didn't mean that literally. Let me phrase that again...More like deserves an award...!
                And yes, in my opinion, it's the best restaurant in Pasadena. The combination of everything, this including the service, food, from the appetizer, salad, entree, to the dessert. The total feel to it was so different from what you're used to dining in Pasadena. I really felt like this place was definitely outside the norm...
                They get my seal of approval because it really was an intimate dining experience like no other.

                1. re: WildSwede

                  They just received the prestigious "James Beard Pasadena Restaurant Named Central Park Award"

              2. Well, the in-laws have offered a belated-birthday dinner at a place of my choosing, and I chose to do it AGAIN at Central Park, this time with both Mrs. O and her parents. Friday evening. I will bring a camera this time...

                BTW, when I called last night to make the reservation, the person on the phone insisted that the place is not called Central Park Cafe, as I had read, but simply Central Park. I guess "Cafe" sounded too downmarket to them.

                1. Thanks for the report - took a group of girlfriends for a work valentine's lunch yesterday and we were all pleasantly surprised and pleased. This is a picky picky group... and happiness all around. The tomato stack, the chicken quesadilla and the caprese chicken sandwich (with GOOD nasty deli-type broccoli salad) were the highlights. Service was good, the iced tea was fresh and well re-filled... good all around.

                  1. I hate to be a downer, but after reading all the great reviews, I can't agree that Central Park restaurant in Pasadena is a good choice. My boyfriend and I saw a play in Pasadena tonight and decided to try CP for dinner. It started out great...got a Sunday night reservation w/ an hour notice, had a lovely table at the window, nibbled on mediocre focaccia & flat bread w/ some very tasty olive oil and tapenade, and truly enjoyed my glass of Echelon Pinot and tomato stack appetizer. ...unfortunately, things went downhill from there...

                    I ordered the well-reviewed sand dabs. They were practically deep fried (oil soaked w/ petrified skin) and drenched in a very bland cream sauce. My 5 capers were not enough to trick my taste buds into downing the fish, so I stole my boyfriend's mountain of capers (which he doesn't eat anyway) and forced myself to eat the tasteless greasy fish.

                    I had replaced my mashed potatoes w/ the "healthier" broccoli salad which was tasty at first, but drenched in mayo and sickeningly sweet, it didn't pair very well with the fish. ...and maybe not the best health alternative.

                    My boyfriend had the shrimp scampi, which was also bland and overcooked. Also, the shells were left on, and though butterflied, they were quite a pain to peel for not much meat or flavor. His mashed potatoes, however, were excellent and most definitely the best part of both main courses.

                    After all this, we still wanted to end our meal well and ordered dessert. My boyfriend had the chocolate mousse which was rich and chocolatey...yay! ...but I had the creme brulee, which was so thick and eggy that my spoon stood up without falling over. The texture of the crème was almost grainy and tasted as if it had sat out for days. On top of all that, the ramekin was extra deep, almost 3", so I could only stomach the top layer of crème that was connected to the brulee.

                    Besides the sub-par food, the manager and waitress were very selective of who they paid attention to. They spent plenty of time with a handful of other customers, explaining specials, discussing tidbits about the menu and sharing restaurant stories. Our waitress waited until just before we ordered to even ask if we wanted to hear the specials, which was the most attention she gave us throughout the entire meal. Let's just say we felt a bit jilted.

                    Central Park is a cute neighborhood restaurant with decent prices and a good wine list. Maybe this is just a story about inconsistency, but we won't be going back to find out.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: luv2savr

                      Did you complain? If your server asked “How is/was everything?” or something similar, what was your response? If you didn’t complain, don’t you think you should’ve, especially if you’re going to relay your bad experience (1 visit) on Chowhound. If you saw the Manager schmoozing other tables why didn’t you get his attention and tell him rather than just feel jilted?

                      Based on my experience and the majority of Chounders reviewing Central Park Café, your experience is an exception to the rule as I’m sure you realize (“after reading all the great reviews”). I trust other Chounders will try Central Park for themselves. I’m confident most will agree it’s a nice neighborhood bistro with good food and very reasonable prices.

                      1. re: burger

                        Yes, you are right. I wanted to complain at the time, but my boyfriend was very embarrassed and begged me to eat the food anyway. I wasn't quite sure what to do in that situation, which is why I erupted on this site. I am sorry to sully a restaurant w/ such great reviews, but my disappointment overcame me. I was just so excited to finally try a place that every Chowhound seemed to agree on. I thought I was guaranteed a good meal. I guess that's never possible in real life. There are too many factors that go into a meal. I wish you better luck at CP and I will try to be more honest with the wait-staff in the future.

                    2. I've only been there for breakfast. I thought the food was good and reasonably priced (under $25 for two people, after tax and tip). I would go back for breakfast. I think the parking is a bit tight and could be improved. Also, my side order of sausage could have been a bit more well-done. Other than that, I had a nice time there. Our waitress was friendly, and the manager did ciriculate the restaurant and chat with customers at all the tables.