Restaurant of the Week: Casa Moreno

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Casa Moreno, 101 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 1st), Claremont

Casa Moreno, which opened in July, fills a prime slot in Claremont’s Village Expansion, facing the public square and cater-corner to the movie theater. It’s a family owned place with one other location, in Covina. The Claremont location has a large dining room with high ceilings, a pleasant color scheme and a neat nook as a waiting area, plus outdoor seating with fire pits for cool evenings.

The restaurant is moderately busy on weeknights and busy on weekends. I had dinner there with a friend on Tuesday before seeing “Inception,” which turned out to be great. The restaurant, however, inspired mixed feelings. The service was friendly but the food didn’t live up to our expectations.

The salsa with the chips was very good. Her margarita ($8) was made from a mix. The chicken mole ($15, pictured), a specialty, was, dare I say it, complex (albeit not as complex as “Inception”), but the chicken was dry. The ceviche ($10) didn’t taste especially fresh. The chiles relleno ($15) were okay. They put cheddar cheese on the refried beans and the tortillas were storebought.

Even small taquerias like Juanita’s or Patty’s make their own tortillas, and a meal there will set you back five bucks. It wouldn’t take much effort to make a margarita from scratch, according to my friend. Seemed to us if you’re going to charge three times more than a taqueria, the food should be better than a taqueria, not the same or worse.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too tough on Casa Moreno. The place just opened, and it’s still in the shakeout period. They’re operating with only a limited menu before rolling out the whole thing. Reviews on Yelp are also mostly underwhelmed. Perhaps management will get the message and can inspire the kitchen and bar staff to kick it up a notch. It’s such a great location, especially for diners wanting a meal or drink before or after a movie, that I would go back regardless — although at this point it wouldn’t be my first choice.

(A lot of Daily Bulletin readers were there Tuesday. I ran into several people I know, and reader Barry Miller, at the next table, introduced himself to us. He was so excited to meet real live newspaper people, he bought our dinner. Thanks, Barry.)

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Restaurant of the Week: Kazama

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Kazama Sushi, 101 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

Sometimes these writeups are based on a single meal. Kazama, however, is a place I’ve eaten at a half-dozen times since it relocated to Claremont’s Village expansion in 2007 after a couple of years in Rancho Cucamonga. I like it. It’s easy to get to for me, it’s near the Laemmle theater complex, the food’s good and the experience is quiet and professional.

A friend took me to lunch there Saturday for a belated birthday get-together. I got the tekka don ($16.50), a bowl of tuna sashimi on sushi rice. Check out the presentation! That’s a piece of sashimi curled into the shape of a rose. Very nice. And yes, the dish tasted good too.

My friend had the weekend lunch special ($12.50) which had a little of everything: tuna and salmon sushi, California rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, chicken teriyaki, salad, miso soup and fruit. She liked it. We also split an order of gyoza ($4.95).

Kazama is small, about six tables, plus a long, curving sushi bar with 20 seats. Decor is understated. Some grumble that the prices are too high, and they may be, although an extra couple of bucks for a nice experience in the high-rent district doesn’t bother me.

There’s a second Japanese restaurant less than two blocks north and there’s nothing wrong with it either, but I give the edge to Kazama.

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Restaurant of the Week: Hayato

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Hayato Sushi & Grill, 950 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Regis), Claremont

For years, Nogi was the only sushi bar in Claremont, and it wasn’t even in the Village, instead standing on Foothill in a center set back from the street and roughly across from Stater Bros. and near the restaurant that looks like a tugboat. Now there are by my count five Japanese restaurants in town, including one that took over the tugboat, and Nogi, which closed a few months ago when its owner retired, has been replaced by Hayato.

And Hayato is pretty good. The interior has been simplified and classed up with smooth, dark tabletops, a color palette of wasabi green and tasteful art. It’s a restful place.

I’ve had two meals there. First time, at dinner, I had a sushi plate (price forgotten; around $20) with a chef’s choice of nigiri sushi and rolls, plus miso soup; all were above average. Second time, at lunch, I got udon (about $6), a soup of long chewy noodles in a dark broth, plus a few pieces of tempura ($2). The latter meal is pictured above. It was surprisingly filling, not to mention tasty.

(Thankfully no one else was in the dining room at the time to observe my clumsy attempts to pick up the noodles with chopsticks. The spirit is willing but the dexterity is weak.)

I’m looking forward to returning to try more items. Something about the place appealed to me. The atmosphere was serene and the food a cut above. We all have our favorites, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who prefers Kazama or Kinya, but Hayato just might offer the best Japanese food in Claremont.

Meg at M-M-M-My Pomona had positive things to say recently about Hayato as well.

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Restaurant of the Week: McConnell Hall, Pitzer College

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Photo above by Stephanie Guerra

McConnell Hall, Pitzer College, East 9th St. (at Mills), Claremont

The best dining bargain in the Inland Valley may be the Claremont Colleges dining halls. Sure, they’re for students and faculty, but the general public is allowed in. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays, brunch and dinner on weekends. It’s buffet style, all you can eat, and the cost is a mere $7, beverage and tax included. (You might be able to bluff your way in for the $6 student-faculty fee.)

Regulars can tell you the idiosyncracies of each college dining hall. I’ve had lunch at most of them and have yet to be disappointed. The offerings change daily. Here’s a link to the Pitzer site; note the limited hours.

At Pitzer one recent day, they had a couple of soups, salad and dessert bars, stations for hot or cold sandwiches, chicken teriyaki breast, a gourmet pizza (with pear as the topping) and a pasta. There was fresh fruit, breakfast cereal dispensers, frozen yogurt and undoubtedly more that I’ve forgotten.

The made-to-order chicken sandwich, pictured above, had Swiss, mushrooms, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. Good stuff, as was the pizza and the soup. As you can see in the second photo, there was no shortage of cookies, brownies, pastries and other sweets for an indecisive blogger to choose from.

The only downside is finding legal parking. Especially with construction going on, spaces are hard to come by and most of them are marked for students and faculty only. To be safe, park on Claremont Boulevard or College Avenue and hoof it a few blocks. Here’s a link to a Pitzer map; McConnell Hall is No. 9, on 9th Street.

* The New Diner blog has posted a detailed review of McConnell with a clutch of photos.

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Restaurant of the Week: Viva Madrid

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Viva Madrid, 225 Yale Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

One of the 909′s most unique restaurants, Viva Madrid is the only Spanish tapas bar in this corner of the Empire. It’s been operating since the late 1990s in a small arcade of shops near a bagel shop and Rhino Records.

A bunch of us went there to celebrate a birthday last week. The restaurant is cozy, seating under 50, all squeezed in, plus another dozen at the bar. Even on a Thursday night the place is full, with a half-hour to 45-minute wait, a testament to its popularity. It’s a prime place for dates and celebrations. The close quarters add to the room’s energy level.

The single room is heavy on ambiance with rustic wooden tables and chairs, Spanish tchothkes on the walls, a large chandelier and dim lighting. A flamenco guitarist played on a small platform near the ceiling. Three friends toasted a 60th birthday at the bar. The restaurant attracts a wide age range, from college students to seniors.

The heart of the menu is the tapas, 40 small plates from $1 to $9. Each has a few bites, good for sharing, but not with many people. While they could be considered appetizers, most diners make a meal of them.

The six of us shared 11 tapas: yellowfin tuna on toast, an empanada, salmon-wrapped asparagus, chicken croquettes, chorizo-stuffed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped dates, barbacoa chicken, cheese and olives, beef with garlic and white wine, mussels and a basket of bread. We also had a seafood paella, which is a rice dish (double portion $32), and a creme brulee for dessert. Some had sangria ($15 per liter). The bill worked out to $27 per person, with the birthday honoree’s money not accepted.

There were some mild complaints: The size of the tapas varies too much (why are some two pieces and others five?), the bread didn’t taste fresh, the asparagus tasted canned, none of the dishes were especially complex or inventive.

Those cavils out of the way, most of the food was delicious. We all enjoyed our meal quite a bit, for the food, atmosphere and conviviality. Most of us are irregular but repeat customers, hitting the place for special occasions. There’s no place in the region quite like Viva Madrid.

I say, viva Viva Madrid!

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Restaurant of the Week: La Piccoletta

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La Piccoletta, 114 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd, sort of), Claremont

Hidden away in a Claremont Village alley, La Piccoletta is in a standalone building between 1st and 2nd streets and between Indian Hill and Yale. These directions will be handy in case I ever want to find it again, because for years at a time I’ve forgotten precisely where it was until stumbling across it on foot.

The building, once a shop that made smudge pots for local orchards, has a trompe l’oeil mural of vines, a stone doorway and a window, but no actual windows. This deterred me for years, that and the no-lunch hours and set menu, which led me to believe (correctly) that as a solo diner I wouldn’t be comfortable. I’ve also heard the restaurant’s glory days were behind it after a couple of ownership changes.

Still, I was curious, and at last, I scared up a friend to accompany me. Reservations made — it’s a small place, and you’ll need them — we arrived and were seated immediately. A party filled the communal table and the half-dozen other tables were occupied too. The cottage-like interior reminded me of a mission or a monastery: rustic, dark wood, a stained glass window, thick wooden tables. A smudge pot perches on a shelf near the ceiling.

The menu is more complicated than under previous owners, I’m told. Instead of two pastas and two sauces for the evening, there were four sauces, plus several other entrees.

I got the penne pasta ($17) with a half and half of two sauces: aromi (cream, Romano cheese and tomatoes) and pesto. My friend got a filet mignon with balsamic reduction ($26), which also came with a small side of pasta. The entrees both came with a simple salad and a beverage.

My meal wasn’t worth $17. As other friends have said, you could make the same meal at home. The sauces, while fresh, were bland. The pasta didn’t taste homemade. The restaurant doesn’t seem to be hurting for business, but $10 would be a fairer price for what they’re serving.

That said, the steak was tender and flavorful, and worth every penny. It was that good. A berry tart ($6.50) was fine but unexceptional.

A basket of warm, crunchy bread contained only two small pieces. We soon asked for more and got two more pieces. Modesty forbid requesting a third serving, but two more pieces would have been nice. Service was friendly.

There are three other Italian restaurants in the Village, and you could probably get better Italian food at any of them. La Piccoletta’s atmosphere, however, is unique and makes up for a lot of the flaws. But they really need to pep up the sauces.

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Restaurant of the Week: La Parolaccia

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La Parolaccia Osteria Italiana, 201 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

This is the newest restaurant in the Village Expansion, an “osteria Italiana” (with a second location in Long Beach) whose name is said to translate, amusingly, as “bad language.” The restaurant, which opened a couple of months ago, took off immediately — the place always seems to be jumping — and I finally visited with a friend Thursday evening. We made reservations for 7 p.m. and reservations turned out to be a good idea, as even on a Thursday the restaurant was almost full.

They have a selection of pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven, some with unusual ingredients such as eggplant, smoked salmon, yellow squash and goat cheese. Pastas include ravioli, linguine and fettucine, often with pesto, olive oil or other non-marinara treatments.

We had the Napoletana pizza ($12.50) with tomato sauce, mozzarella, capers, black olives and anchovies, and the linguine con i frutti di mare ($18.50), with fresh seafood. The latter was essentially a bowl of seafood (scallops, shrimp, clams, etc.) with a dollop of linguine and was quite good. The pizza, after I got past my unrealistic expectations that it would be as creative as Pizzeria Mozza’s in L.A., proved quite good as well, thin and crisp.

For dessert, the waitress recommended bread pudding ($9), which came with a scoop of gelato. She was on the money.

The meal didn’t proceed without hiccups: Perhaps the waitress hadn’t understood your soft-spoken blogger’s order, because we got a different linguine; it was returned and out came the right one, except, kitchen’s fault, they forgot to add the pasta. But this was quickly remedied and we were charged for the initial, mistaken dish, which was $4.75 cheaper, leaving nothing to object to.

I’d rank La Parolaccia among the valley’s better Italian restaurants, given the creative menu, but would like to reserve special praise for the location and atmosphere. Tables are close together, but not too close, so you get a friendly buzz from a roomful of people unseparated by booths or partitions. Service was friendly and prompt.

And from the exterior, the enormous windows show off people having a good time, in close proximity to a sidewalk, busy street and movie theater. It’s both urban and urbane. As a pedestrian I’ve seen other passersby cast an envious glance inside or closely examine the menu posted outside. La Parolaccia seems like a restaurant in Pasadena, not Claremont. I’m glad it’s here instead.

* Update April 2014: Spoiling the effect, they put curtains in the windows a year or so in, presumably due to complaints from privacy-conscious Claremonters who wouldn’t dream of dining al fresco. I’ve eaten here a few times since my 2008 writeup, including a lunch this month to celebrate birthdays and update this post with photos. I had the ravioli with spinach and ricotta ($13.50, below), a friend had a classico panini ($10, below that) and we shared an enormous tiramisu the size of a block of lasagna ($7.50, bottom). Service was deft and professional. Still a good spot.

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Restaurant of the Week: KiKiRyKi

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KiKiRyKi, 344 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Arrow Highway), Claremont

That dull, gray shopping plaza at Indian Hill and Arrow was updated into a more colorful, eye-catching design in 2013, but even before that, it had a couple of intriguing eateries, among them┬áKiKiRyKi, which I tried at the urging of a friend who’s a fiend for the place.

It’s Claremont’s other Peruvian restaurant, the finer one being Inka Trails on Foothill near Towne. That place has atmosphere and is a bit pricey. KiKiRyKi is cheaper and you order at the counter, but the food seems practically as good.

Before you ask, I don’t know what the deal is with the upper-lower name, which reminds me of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in “L.A. Story” — you remember, SanDeE* (“capital S, small A, small N, capital D, small E, capital E, star”). Just as confusing, you walk up to the entrance under the sign and a small sign tells you to use the entrance to the left, which is under a sign reading Pollos.

Well, they do specialize in rotisserie chicken, but we skipped it. I had the Lomo Saltado ($9.99, below) and an Inka Kola in a can ($1.75). My friend got the Tallarin Saltado (also $9.99) and, to split, a fish ceviche ($11.99).

The ceviche was dressed in lime, cilantro and slivered onion, with a hunk of sweet potato on the side. Simple and tasty. Our lomo dishes were beef with chunks of tomato and onion, mine served on papas fritas (french fries), with rice on the side, the other with spaghetti. Mine was quite good. The sole disappointment was the dry rice, but as it was on the side I just left it. The Inka Kola was pleasantly unnatural, tasting like a Fanta soda crossed with bubble gum.

People on Yelp like the place too but, alas, none explain its name. In fact, Yelp calls it Pollos Kikiryki.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Back Abbey

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Photo by John Valenzuela

The Back Abbey, 128 N. Oberlin Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

The Back Abbey opened in June 2008 behind the Laemmle theater in Claremont’s Village Expansion. The building, which dates to at least the 1920s, was an ice house that chilled citrus bound by rail for other states. The small, distinctive structure was saved when the Expansion was being planned and sat, window-less but full of promise, until early this year when renovations began.

Well, it’s a neat little building and the Belgian pub that occupies it is a great addition. A friend and I went in for dinner a few days ago. It has a lived-in look, dark and rustic. The metal rafters are exposed and the hanging lights look industrial. There are tables inside, and one long high table with bar-style chairs, good for individuals, plus seating outside.

The beer menu apparently doesn’t exist. The food menu is on a chalkboard posted high above the bar. It consists of salads, burgers and bratwursts. It’s upscale bar food.

I had the Back Abbey Burger (at $13, possibly the most expensive burger in the Inland Valley) and my friend had the Grilled Vegetable Burger ($11), a portabello mushroom with eggplant, feta cheese, zucchini, red bell peppers and another item or two I got tired of craning my neck to read off the menu. It proved far more interesting than a Gardenburger.

My burger came on a brioche bun and had mustard aioli, microgreens, caramelized onions and a type of bacon whose proper name I couldn’t read. Well, it was a heckuva burger and worth the $13, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t blanch at a double-digit burger.

The presentation and price, not to mention the setting, invite comparisons to Father’s Office in Santa Monica and Culver City.

The half-order of fries I can recommend unreservedly. They come in a paper cone with three dipping sauces. The sauces are OK; the fries are amazing.

As for the beers, the Abbey has some 30 Belgian beers on tap. This is apparently A Big Deal in the beer community, Belgian beer being considered among the best and having it on tap being a rarity. There’s no beer list, annoyingly, so you may be hard-pressed to know what to get. My friend tried a couple and liked them. Beer doesn’t appeal to me and a sip of one didn’t change my mind.

But if you’re into it, Back Abbey is almost like a wine bar for beer. It’s very non-909 and Claremont’s lucky to have it. The clientele ranged from the 20s into the 60s that night, and it will be interesting to see this fall if Claremont Colleges students adopt the place and its $7 to $9 beers or whether it remains more of a beer snob/foodie hotspot.

About my only criticism is that it’s very LOUD. It’s not TVs, it’s not music, it’s just conversation that makes the interior almost as noisy as a nightclub. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about it, other than timing your visit to off-hours.

You can read reviews on Yelp and on the M-M-M-My Pomona blog.

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Restaurant of the Week: Malott Commons, Scripps College

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Malott Commons, the Scripps College dining hall, 10th Street (at Columbia), Claremont

I was invited to lunch Thursday at Scripps by Judy Harvey Sahak of the college’s Denison Library. Claremont Colleges’ food won a deserved rave from a visitor and blogger from Occidental College. I ate last year at Pomona College’s Frary dining hall and was impressed.

Harvey Sahak bragged that the Scripps food service is the best of any of the colleges and told me I had to try it.

Well! It’s all you can eat, and I can’t even tell you all the stuff they had, they had so much. Let’s see: a good salad bar; four kinds of soup, including sourdough bread bowls; an array of gourmet-style hamburgers, deli sandwiches and paninis; four varieties of wood-fired pizza by the slice; a pasta dish called eggplant roll-a-tini; barbecued beef brisket and cornbread; meatball stromboli; and vegetarian dishes cooked to order.

I had cream of asparagus soup, pizza with tomato, salad, meatball stromboli (a sandwich in a pita-like bread) and a slice of beef brisket. For dessert, frozen yogurt. Plus an iced tea. Harvey Sahak insisted on treating. Price is $5 for colleges folk and $7.50 for anyone else, not that anyone checks ID. Anyone can eat at the college dining halls, and while they don’t exactly publicize that fact, they don’t discourage the public.

Best dining deal in town. And the food is a long way from mac and cheese and mystery meat.

In a satisfying boost for my ego, I was even recognized by a couple of readers, a college employee and her mom. All in all, a pleasant outing.

* Update October 2014: More than six years after the above, I came back for lunch and photos. Malott has various stations to visit: a salad bar, Healthy U (vegetarian, vegan and allergy-free), Pizza and Stuff, Grille, Traditional Favorites, International, and Bakery and Desserts. Wow! See the day’s offerings below.

(The bakery thoughtfully had vegan brownies and gluten-free cookies. It also had Dr. Bob’s ice cream, mango sorbet, regular cookies and Cinnamon Crunch treats.)

I had Korean tacos, both beef and tofu; kimchi; a slice of pizza; and a tuna melt; as well as some salad. For dessert, ice cream. Does life get much better than this? Although Scripps is a women’s college, anyone is allowed in the cafeteria, and “most of the CMC boys eat here,” I was advised.

There are three small-ish dining rooms. One stately room, pictured at bottom, is unexpectedly nicknamed the Bikini Room because the stained glass patterns evidently form into a pattern resembling a woman in a two-piece, or maybe a series of women in a series of two-pieces. I couldn’t see a thing. I can never see Magic Eye pictures either.

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