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Maison Akira Pasadena keeps getting better

  • g

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.

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  1. Akira is definitely one of the best restaurants in Pasadena.

    10 Replies
    1. re: russkar

      You'll have a far better dining experience in Pasadena at Derek's or Bistro 561.

      1. re: HPP

        ...or Parkway Grill.

        I wouldn't waste my time again at Akira.

        1. re: HPP

          Been to both, plus Bisro 45 and Halie.

          1. re: russkar

            So how would you rank all those? Derek's, Parkway, Bistro 45, Maison Akira, Bistro 561?

            1. re: Bert

              My rank:

              1. Derek's
              2. Parkway Grill
              3. Bistro 561
              4. Bistro 45
              5. Maison Akira

              1. re: HPP

                Having been to all recently (with the new chefs at Halie and Parkway), and taking everything into account, including wine and price, here's my two cents:
                1. Halie
                2. Derek's -Maison Akira (tie)
                4. Bistro 45
                5. Bistro 561 (I think the service is the main reason to go - the students are great)
                6. Parkway (it wouldn't have finished this low two years ago)

                1. re: Bert

                  Because of Parkway's and Halie's new chefs they really aren't rate-able yet. I like Bistro 45 when it's "on" and Akira when it's consistant. Yuejean Kang's is good too.

              2. re: HPP

                Isn't Bistro 561 the cooking school restaurant? how IS that place?!

                1. re: Bert

                  I have really enjoyed it and always look forward to my next visit. Just wish it was open on Sat/Sun!

                  The food is usually very interesting, original, fresh, and well prepared with good to average wine pairings to accompany. I've always done the tasting menu and have never been disappointed.

                  Service is the only thing that can be iffy. It's not bad service - it's just that you can sometimes feel the timidity of the students as they hover or seemingly nervously attend to the table.

            2. I completely disagree. I went about a week and a half ago, and was thoroughly disappointed.

              My major annoyance was with the service. It was a weeknight, so it wasn't very full - and service was horrid. Everything took forever (and I typically like leisurely (but attentive) service). During the course of our time there, 4 people 'served' us.... you'd think someone would know what they were doing. Between the hostess, our waitress, the bus boy and a woman whom I'm assuming was an owner/manager - they barely could handle the table... and we weren't demanding guests in the LEAST!! Simple requests like oil/vinegar took about 10 minutes. The amuse was brought out, set down and as I was beginning to ask what it consisted of - the wait staff walked off! After both my appetizer and main course, my empty plate sat in front of me for at least 15 minutes (each time!) before being cleared. The waitress would walk into the room (there was only one other table occupied in our room), would not look over at our table - despite my attempts to get her attention. The only person who had any tableside manner was the lady I thought was the owner/manger. She seemed to know that service was poor and appeared to be helping out to try to make things run more smoothly.

              Enough about that... (but that should be enough).... on to the food.

              I had the lobster bisque. It wasn't completely a flop, a nice consistency - but had WAY too much of a fishy aftertaste... and lingered with me for the rest of the evening (and that WASN'T a good thing!)

              The miso seabass was very tasty, perfectly done. Had a wonderful coating, as I recall. It was very good - but I'd categorize it as 'acceptable' vs. an 'out of this world' type experience. For the price you are paying (I think around $28 for the dish), you expect a good piece of fish! - which it was. What was not acceptable were there seasoned vegetables it was served with. Not only did they look like they were spoiled (all ragged and withered - and it wasn't because of the preparation), but tasted that way too.

              My dining partner had the salmon and had nothing but wonderful things to say about it.

              Had a couple very nice glasses of pinot noir (sorry, can't remember the name, but I think it was the only one they serve by the glass). The wine definitely salvaged the evening.

              For dessert, we had the apple tart - it wasn't very good. The apples were nice, very thinly sliced... but the tart was bland, way too dry and just gross and tasteless in general. It was served with a bit of ice cream on the side, which turned out to be the highlight of the plate.

              We had coffee and tea - and just thinking about the pains we went through get cream/sugar or a refill makes me cringe. I think I had to flag down the hostess, since our waitress was no where to be seen.

              I'm glad you had a nice time there. I had wanted to go to Akira for long time and was very disappointed with the entire experience. While I realize that it might have just been a 'bad' night - for a long, established restaurant, it was completely unacceptable. There are way too many other places in town that are FAR better for me to ever want to go here again or ever recommend it to anyone.

              4 Replies
              1. re: HPP

                I read your (or maybe someone else's) post about the service prior to going and approached the place with a good deal of trepidation - it wasn't my choice. But, as noted, we had no problems at all and were impressed by the food. Maybe just a good night; maybe different dishes; maybe the chef wasn't there the night you went. It is obviously an uneven place, but I'll try it again soon.

                1. re: HPP

                  I agree with HPP-- something must have happened between some of these earlier posts from 2005 and today -- my husband and I went in July (2007) for our anniversay after reading the glowing reviews here but were completely disappointed. The amuse as well as the soup were both so bad that I would call them inedible. All the other courses except for one were lackluster for me. This place needs a major revamp. I can't believe he trained with Robuchon -- we went to Robuchon in Vegas in April and had hands down the best dinner of our lives. I would easily call our night at Robuchon the worst fine dining dinner I have ever had. Also see my husband's post under a thread for "maisonakira" (no space).

                  1. re: epicuremily

                    I am new to Pasadena. I just did a search on restaurant Halie.I read that the restaurant is closed.The only restaurnat that I know of on E, Green STreet is Madeleine's (which I think is fantastic..great wines, atmosphere, elegant fod etc)Any info would be greatly appreicated!

                    1. re: epicuremily

                      "we went to Robuchon in Vegas in April and had hands down the best dinner of our lives. I would easily call our night at Robuchon the worst fine dining dinner I have ever had"

                      come again?