You know such a place. The one where the lunching ladies are perfectly coiffed, lingering over a glass of white wine, and speaking whispered tidbits of highly confidential information to each other, all the while checking out the competition. Every town has such a place, and for the young, intermediate and mature ladies of Pasadena, South Pasadena and San Marino, Julienne is that place.
No matter the day, the sidewalk benches are filled with hopefuls waiting for a table. If you've been there, you know why. Food that tickles your fancy, service beyond compare, and an adjoining market where you can pick up the evening’s dinner, some specialities to keep in the pantry or the perfect hostess gift. Reservations are highly recommended. But for those without, patience will be rewarded.
Michael Hollis, owner of Hollis Fine Art in South Pasadena, first turned me on to this restaurant. We have purchased several paintings from Hollis Fine Art and always stop by to see the latest exhibit when in the area. Michael has exquisite taste in fine and culinary art, probably inherited from his mother, Susanne Hollis, an antiques dealer specializing in fine Asian, European and South American furnishings in an adjacent store. So when Michael insists Julienne must be tried, one is well advised to listen and act accordingly.
However, it was easier said than done. We rarely know our schedule when traveling, so making a luncheon reservation is out of the question. During many drive-bys, we saw long waiting lines. Since my companion has a very strict policy about restaurant wait lists, it was three years before he relaxed his standards and we have been regulars ever since. Well, as regular as you can be when you live two hours away.
Julienne's interior reminds a bit of a French country bistro. It is warm and welcoming, filled with beautiful fresh flower arrangements, while the staff scurries about with plates of food you can't help but covet. Like the French, it is a bit feminine in design and appearance, but with a touch of machismo from wall trophies of deer, elk and the like and an expensive Italian espresso machine piled high with cappuccino and espresso mugs. Outside is a large patio that is favored by the locals and for which a table is probably harder to score. If you are alone or in a hurry, a cozy three person counter makes a perfect option. After all, three's company!
The adjoining market is rife with tasty delicacies, pre-packaged appetizers and entrees, wines, cookbooks, oils, vinegars, lotions and potions, dishes, flatware and cooking utensils. Select your dinner, Hollywood Bowl picnic or evening’s dessert from a culinary bounty. Or browse among enough interesting non-culinary merchandise to satisfy a shopping diva on her lunch break. Just be prepared for sensory overload from the wealth of choices the market offers.
The seasonal menus feature fresh local produce and vary significantly from season-to- season, although fortunately some favorites make all the menus. We caught the last day of the Spring lunch menu on our most recent visit. Lucky us! Whether Spring or Summer, a glass of Rose from Provence is the perfect way to start a lunch. Crisp, light and refreshing, low in alcohol, high in happiness! Today's menu offering was Rose, Triennes, Provence, 2009 for $25.00 a bottle. Also available by the glass, but why bother when the bottle is so perfectly priced for one or two to enjoy over lunch?
Being “Gazpacho Groupies,” we each had a bowl of Garden Fresh Gazpacho. Zippy, zingy, perfect balance of acidity, texture and flavor, it is one of my favorites. The vegetables are diced to the perfect size, and each bite is like a fresh tomato, cucumber, and pepper exploding in your mouth. The dish is cool, refreshing, and slightly tangy. A great way to wake up one’s taste buds for the courses to follow.
Choosing an entree is always challenging because there are so many wonderful options. My companion selected Halibut Fish Tacos, and I acquiesced to my waistline and went for the Tostada with Grilled Chicken. After all, if I wanted dessert, which I did, a sacrifice had to be made.
Fish tacos have become as ubiquitous as Castle Rock Pinot Noir, so my companion’s choice was seemingly benign and uninspired. But the food at Julienne is neither benign nor uninspired. The halibut tasted like it was caught that morning, grilled quickly to sear in the flavor and juices, and wrapped in a fresh tortilla that appeared handmade and cooked just moments before. The tacos were served with a citrus basil coleslaw, red onion, citrus salsa, jalapeno aioli, and petite greens. Each bite was bursting with citrus and cool, basil overtones which set the stage for a “mouthgasm” when topped with a little jalapeno aioli. My companion kept muttering “bon, bon, bon …” So let's just say he was one happy diner!
As described in the menu, the Tostada with Grilled Chicken seemed like an incredibly healthy option, and it was. While lacking a “healthy heart” symbol, it looked, smelled and tasted like a healthy meal, but one with some sinfully delicious flavors. Roasted corn that popped in your mouth with every taste, cumin black beans --what a way to spice up your beans--and, topping it all off, jalapeno guacamole. Holy Guacamole! If salads always tasted this good, I'd eat more of them.
Pleasingly full but not sated, we turned our attention to the dessert menu. It was literally impossible that day to resist dessert, or a cup of cappuccino for that matter. From our vantage point at the counter, the well-filled dessert tray had been paraded past us many times and the espresso machine was directly across from us. So it was just a matter of which, not whether, desserts and coffee drinks would be chosen. One Rhubarb Brown Butter Tart for the lady (and, no, the lady is not a tart-- she is a culinary diva, although some might argue there is no difference!) and a lovely, nameless pastry filled with fresh, dark berries for the gentleman (this designation is indubitably questionable). Two perfectly frothed cappuccinos accompanied these dishes.
The contrast between the rhubarb and the sweet brown butter shortbread crust was divine, while the pastry was light, flaky, and everything a pastry crust should be. The differences between the crusts mean this restaurant takes its pastry seriously. No Pillsbury refrigerated dough for Julienne!
The next time you are in the Pasadena area, stop at Julienne. It's worth the wait.
2649 Mission Street
San Marino, California 91108
Michael Hollis Fine Art
238 Pasadena Avenue
South Pasadena, CA 91030
Tuesday-Saturday 11 to 5