Since January, Bar Chelou has produced some of L.A.’s most exciting cooking, all from a rather unlikely neighborhood: Pasadena, home of countless chains and good-for-the-area restaurants. Helmed by Douglas Rankin, previously of Silver Lake’s now-closed Bar Restaurant and Ludo Lefebvre’s Petit Trois, the globally inspired European bistro occupies the same theater-adjacent space that once held Dominique Crisp’s Saso, another chef-driven endeavor that critics (including me here at Time Out) welcomed, but nearby residents evidently didn’t. The fact that my recent weekday visits have found the Pasadena Playhouse space quite busy indicates that this new restaurant isn’t likely to suffer the same fate. Far from it, actually. Against all odds, Bar Chelou has turned into the rare restaurant that functions as both an upscale locals spot and citywide dining destination.
Together with pastry chef Raymond Morales, who also worked at Bar Restaurant, Rankin has created a French-leaning menu of unconventional small plates and beautiful desserts full of surprising pops of flavor. Certain standouts, particularly in the vegetable realm, are as steadfast as toy soldiers. Among them: The rainbow trout, which comes with swirls of verdant garlic-chive oil and a side of “corn rice,” a delightfully crunchy, sweet mixture that adds flavor and texture. The same goes for the carrot salad, showered in a fragrant coconut-lime dressing reminiscent of Thai-style limeade, and the sprouting cauliflower, served in a Sichuan peppercorn sauce au poivre. Order these dishes, plus the ibérico pork chop topped with fennel pollen furikake or the snap peas with grated egg yolk and crumbled sausage, and you’ll have an amazing meal.
Elsewhere, however, the menu occasionally flounders. The clam toast with melted leeks and escabeche ran too sweet for my taste, and the morcilla cigars, served with apple vinegar, tasted like lackluster egg rolls. The raw dishes—scallop tartare and bluefin tuna crudo at the time of writing—were solid, if not exactly memorable, and the crispy potatoes with aonori (green laver), which your server is likely to recommend, are well-made, but nothing more. Housemade pan de cristal with burrata and paleta ibérica and an excellent cheese plate fill the niche for slightly more everyday-ish bites for the neighborhood, and Rankin has, as of late, smartly done away with pricier cuts of steak in favor of a less costly $50 dry-aged short rib, which delivers just as much flourish with torn perilla leaves and blackberry black vinegar sauce.
Bar Chelou’s strengths lie among the (non-vegetarian) cooked vegetables and entrées, as well as in desserts, where Morales tops a delectable lemon-chamomile semifreddo with an intricate floral fritter, marigold petals and calamansi gastrique. Other seasonal fruity desserts like a deconstructed strawberry shortcake and raspberry-sumac sorbet are equally worthy of attention. As with the food, Bar Chelou’s wine and cocktail program leans French, but not overly so. A modest wine list includes skin-contact, red and pink wines, and there’s a short list of house apértifs like the Chelou 75, which adds a touch of raspberry liqueur to the classic champagne cocktail.
On my first visit to Bar Chelou, I left absolutely delighted with my meal; on the second and third times—visits I usually reserve for a menu’s B-side—pleased but slightly less so. Though not every dish has thoroughly won me over, I still appreciate the menu’s creative edges, especially when compared to the play-it-safe strategy other upscale places have tended to adopt in recent years, and the food is certainly more interesting than other nearby places at a similar price point. The restaurant holds its own when compared to the most interesting restaurants in Silver Lake, Frogtown and other “hip” neighborhoods, so ignore the sleepy address; Bar Chelou is a dining experience worth going out of the way for.
The vibe: Slightly fancy and dim-lit, though you can also casually drop in and grab a few bites at the bar.
The food: Eclectic, globally inspired bistro fare and excellent desserts. Standouts include the rainbow trout, ibérico pork chop and lemon-chamomile semifreddo.
The drink: An array of mostly French wines, plus a small menu of apértifs and non-alcoholic drink options.
Time Out tip: Don’t be afraid to nibble on the bones of the pork chop or short rib at the table—they’re bone-in for a reason.