Restaurant Review #227: Bar Celona, Pasadena

Poblano pepper and bean dip with crispy flatbread

Bar Celona has been in Old Town Pasadena for years, but Chef Josef Centeno of Echo Park's Lot 1 helped re-do the menu recently. Though I hadn't been to Bar Celona before, I did remember looking at the menu and thinking that it didn't seem very interesting. This time, there were more things I wanted to order than I could afford (or eat).


We went on a Tuesday night because we wanted to hear the live flamenco music. Every Tuesday night, local flamenco band Cale plays in the bar area. They mostly played Gypsy Kings, which I enjoyed and is certainly crowd-pleasing, though I would have liked to hear more variety. You don't have to sit in the bar area to hear the music, as they play it through the restaurant's speaker system. Unfortunately, we were sitting right underneath a speaker and it was very loud. I also had to watch some drunk birthday girl twirling around in front of the band, trying to get attention all night. I guess what I'm saying is that the music is great, but you might want to sit in the dining room instead of the bar area. You'll still be able to hear the music.

We started with a non-Spanish hummus-like appetizer. The flavor was good, but it had that fermented tang to it, like it had been sitting around a day too long. So you may want to skip the poblano pepper dip.

But don't worry, it gets better.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, lightly breaded and fried

I have loved piquillo peppers ever since I had them at Jose Andres's Jaleo in D.C. I savored every bite of this dish, eating it entirely too slowly so that the fried breading got soggy. I also love chile rellenos, but I'm not sure that deep frying peppers is the greatest idea--they're so moist that you're lucky if the coating is still crispy when the dish arrives at your table. Eat this one as soon as you get it.

Flatbread with three sausages

The flatbread with three sausages sounded so boring, and $9 for what is essentially a mini-pizza is pretty egregious. (You're right--I didn't order it.) But the Spanish chorizos and the unique, tangy sauce were outstanding. The dish had a very rustic, homemade feel and was big enough that you could share it without feeling deprived of a decent portion.

Potato and pulled pork shoulder croquettes

I love croquettes, but they are almost never done right. Usually, croquettes are dry, and these were no exception. Pulled pork could have been a very flavorful filling (think carnitas), but in this case it wasn't. I think I'm just going to have to learn to make my own croquettes, because the only good ones I've had since Spain were in Puerto Rico. I wouldn't order this dish again.

Sweet potato and butter empanadas

I couldn't get enough of the sweet potato empanadas. The deep-fried pastry was light and flaky on the outside and gooey on the inside. The sweet potato filling was sweet and creamy and thankfully did not remind me of Thanksgiving. I'm not sure I ever saw an empanada while I lived in Spain, but authenticity be damned. The empanadas were delicious.

Chicken kebab

As I'm sure you can tell from the photo, the only bad dish of the bunch was the chicken kebab, which was overcooked and dessicated. It didn't seem like it would have had much flavor even if it had been cooked for the correct amount of time. Marinade, anyone?

Sauteed oyster and crimini mushrooms

The sauteed mixed mushrooms were very flavorful and took me right back to Spain. The name of the dish was slightly misleading, as there were plenty of (cheap) button mushrooms in the dish as well, but it was still more mushrooms than I wanted to eat in one sitting. This is a good dish to share, or, if you don't mind snooty looks from the waitress, take home the leftovers.

Plates range from $6 to $25, so the tab adds up fast--I could have gone out for sushi for the same price and about the same level of fullness. Though I didn't love the prices (especially for the sangria--$8 for one glass with ice in it, really?), they are customary for a tapas restaurant (I'm sure they're also necessary to pay Colorado Blvd. rent!). You can save a few bucks if you go during happy hour, though.

I also didn't like our waitress's snobby attitude, but I can't say that it was representative of the overall service at the restaurant (or even of her--could have been a bad night). I really enjoyed the food, the sleek decor with glowing red panels and warm yellow ochres, and the live music. I would definitely like to go back the next time I feel like splurging.

Bar Celona
46 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA
Bar Celona website
Bar Celona menu


Restaurant Review #226: Ken of Japan, Simi Valley

Spicy mayonnaise--err, spicy scallop roll

Ken of Japan serves the kind of sushi that I used to like--before I moved to California. I knew what I was probably getting myself into by choosing a restaurant that was both Japanese steakhouse and sushi restaurant. But on the other hand, if I had ruled out O2 based on the teriyaki chicken and teriyaki filet mignon that appear on its menu, I never would have found an almost Westside-caliber sushi restaurant in sleepy Simi Valley.

Yellowtail nigiri

So to Ken of Japan I went. We called to make a reservation. For some reason we couldn't have a 7:00 slot for four people--granted, we made the request at 6:00, but you don't expect to be refused a reservation time in the suburbs. Especially when the restaurant is almost entirely empty when you arrive. Who knows why they didn't think they could or didn't want to seat us earlier.

Eel cucumber roll

The menu is expansive. A photo menu of different sushi rolls shows most of the options available, though because of (I'm guessing) space limitations, it is not entirely clear on all the ingredients that are in each roll. Most of the rolls seem to contain crab (or fake crab, as the case may be) or spicy tuna. So while there appears to be a wide variety of interesting sushi on the menu, if you don't like these two items, you'll find yourself mostly limited to the usual stuff. And the usual stuff, like the dry yellowtail nigiri I ordered, is not very good. With sushi, there is no acceptable middle ground. Either the fish is top notch, or it's just not appetizing to eat raw. And with globby, spicy, mayonnaisey rolls, the quality of fish takes a backseat. So why pay a raw fish premium when you're mostly just eating rice and sauce? (As some consolation, the spicy scallop roll was genuinely spicy.)

Spicy tuna tempura roll

If you're the kind of sushi eater who likes spicy tuna tempura rolls (quick, eat them before they get soggy!) and doesn't really like raw fish, you'll probably be quite happy at Ken of Japan. Like I said, the selection is considerable. The portion sizes are also huge, especially if you're used to Westside restaurants, and the prices are reasonable (even bordering on inexpensive). We ordered way too much sushi. Each roll had eight large pieces--not the small six pieces I am used to. I kind of wish our waitress had commented that we might be ordering too much food. But I guess it's not really the staff's job to discourage you from spending money.

Salmon mango roll

As I alluded to in my comments about the reservations, I was disappointed in the service. The mango salmon roll came stuffed, unexpectedly, with crab. When we mentioned it to the waiter, he had no interest in having the roll remade or taking it off the bill, but only asked us if we wanted to box it up and take it home. (I'm not a fan of the "customer is always wrong" philosophy of business.) A take-home box didn't exactly solve the problem for the people who couldn't eat crab (yes, even fake crab). Also, the quality of mango used in the roll was pretty much what you'd expect for the dead of winter--so why is the restaurant even serving it? A place like Kiriko in West LA would never try to pass off a roll made with pale, almost crunchy mango as one of its top offerings--it wouldn't even serve it.

Teriyaki chicken and beef

The non-sushi-eaters in our party ordered a combination plate that came with teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken, spicy chicken, eggrolls, salad, and miso soup. The salad had a mayonnaise-based dressing (surprise) that wasn't appetizing to anyone, so those went back to the dishwasher untouched. The miso soup had bits of fried tempura batter in it (intentionally), which tasted better than it sounds, though soggy bits of batter aren't very appetizing. The teriyaki meats were both dry and inunspired. The spicy chicken was a winner, though.

Spicy chicken

Ken's serves beer, wine, and sake plus cocktails made with soju, a Korean distilled liquor considered comparable to vodka in taste but that doesn't seem to require a full-blown liquor license (Musha in Santa Monica also serves beer, wine, and soju cocktails). We didn't try any of the drinks, though.

You've probably guessed that this isn't my kind of restaurant and I won't be going back. If it sounds appealing to you (plenty of Yelpers like it), save a few bucks by picking up a gift certificate on Restaurant.com before you dine. Look for a coupon code online to get your $25 certificate for as little as $2--Restaurant.com is always having sales.

Also, I should point out that while we chose to sit at a regular table for the peace and quiet and privacy, Ken of Japan also has a room with communal, Benihana-style tables and cooking.

Ken of Japan
4340 Cochran Street
Simi Valley, CA 93063-2352
(805) 527-6490