As the sixth largest city in Los Angeles County, Pasadena is in many ways its most fiercely independent municipality despite improved mass transit connections to the rest of the San Gabriel Valley and beyond. If you’re from Pasadena, then you’re emphatically not from LA, and that’s that.
To a non-native Angeleno, Pasadena is all too easily rolled up into the broader concept of “La-La Land.” Sure, we East Coasters may know about the Rose Bowl and the little old lady from Pasadena, but where the City of Roses and the City of Angels overlap remains confusing. I confess that even after seven years of life as a SoCal resident, I rarely make the drive to Pasadena despite its reputation for great shopping, serious restaurants and that legendary swap meet.
As the sixth largest city in Los Angeles County, Pasadena is in many ways its most fiercely independent municipality despite improved mass transit connections to the rest of the San Gabriel Valley and beyond. If you’re from Pasadena, then you’re emphatically not from LA, and that’s that. With their own considerable educational and cultural institutions, many Pasadena residents don’t feel the need to travel at all in order to experience the finest that life in the Southland has to offer. I think it’s this insularity that also makes Pasadena’s hotel crown jewel so beloved; the landmark 100-year old Huntington Hotel and Spa, a former Ritz-Carlton property, was officially relaunched as the Langham in January of 2008 and is only the second American property from this über luxury hotelier based in Hong Kong. But how to rebrand an iconic resort without compromising its history or alienating its acolytes is a delicate matter, especially in Pasadena.
What appealed to me most about the Langham née Ritz is its Dining Room, where Chef de Cuisine Craig Strong continues to work his Michelin magic. I was lured out into truly heinous traffic based on the strength of Chef Strong’s reputation in the culinary world, though I cursed his name mightily as I thumbed through our tattered Thomas Guide for alternative routes across town. Fortunately, the Langham offers generously discounted rooms for diners, a wise promotion based on the leisurely pace of the tasting menu (our dinner lasted nearly four hours) and the sheer volume of wines offered with it. We were in no shape to drive back to Topanga, that’s for sure, after the five-course extravaganza paired with Byron Kosuge’s excellent wines that we recently enjoyed at the Langham.
Wine dinners are a dime a dozen on any given night in SoCal so knowing which winemakers are worth meeting in person is key. If you don’t know Byron Kosuge’s wines, then you’re missing out, plain and simple. The former winemaker at Saintsbury in Carneros for many years, Byron brings a particular finesse to pinot noir production for which there is no shortcut. He also happens to make syrah that rocks the house. The caliber of Byron’s wines is Pavlovian to a chef as talented as Craig Strong; you just salivate to make something to match, and we also did during the course of what was one of the most artful meals I have experienced in the past five to seven years. By “artful,” I mean just that: a symphony of interaction that is as sophisticated as the LA Phil housed in Gehry’s architectural masterpiece, which by the way is only about half an hour from the Langham. So why do I live in the mountains again?
Highlights from our dinner included a cannelloni of Swiss chard and lobster done in an herb-infused rhubarb sauce which paired beautifully with Byron’s “Alazan” pinot noir, a wine he makes for the Kingston Family in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley. (Like a lot of talented winemakers, Byron heads to the southern hemisphere in California’s off-season.) In the hands of lesser chefs, I’d be real worried about rhubarb and lobster but Chef Strong’s interpretation was spot-on. Similarly, venison done on braised lingonberry red cabbage runs the risk of tasting like a morbid IKEA winter catalog sale, but Strong pulled this dish off and then some with the support of Kosuge’s excellent syrah, made from the Dry Stack Vineyard in California’s Bennett Valley. That venison was accompanied by a fantastic bacon bread pudding to which I can only say, “More please.”
The Langham, in partnership with Chris Meeske of Pasadena’s Mission Wines, has done a commendable job of picking winemakers whose products are a worthy match for Strong’s serious culinary chops. Other headliners in the winemaker dinner series have included importer Rudi Wiest, whose wines represent the pinnacle of Germany, rising star Eric Kent, a cult winemaker whose wines you should try while you can still afford them and Celia Masyczek whose many projects recently earned her 2008’s “Winemaker of the Year” award from Food and Wine magazine. If you love serious wine paired with serious food, I can honestly say that Pasadena is where it’s at folks: no other restaurant in Los Angeles County is doing cuisine on this level, and that’s the honest truth.
As a coda, the Langham is much, much more than just a spot for winos to have fancy-pants dinners. We recently returned for a second visit to enjoy their legendary Easter brunch and I can’t think of anywhere quite as lovely or luxurious to spend a holiday meal. I watched as Mr. Sexton returned with plate after plate of brunch fare: from freshly-shucked oysters, sushi made-to-order and all manner of protein carving stations to the dessert buffet that was straight outta Willie Wonka, the Langham should be your go-to choice for special events like Mother’s Day and the like. For my part, I always, always, always note and remark on service and in this aspect, the Langham is worth every single precious penny of your luxury dollar in this economy. Need a high-chair, no a booster chair, no wait a high chair and yes please, a bit more of that very good rosé Champagne? They’ll be there, effortlessly and graciously.
For our part, we came away from our Easter brunch this year already looking forward to our next one, and feel like we’ve begun a wonderful new family tradition. The Langham has that effect on its guests – you’ll leave already anticipating a return visit to this storied property, where tradition and updated luxury seamlessly blend in a way that add dimension to the idea that everything old is new again, even at one of SoCal’s very oldest resorts.
The Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa
1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue,
Stewards of the peninsula.
Preparing minds & hearts.