Fine dining mainstay remains relevant
By Frier McCollister
The Arbour represented chef Ian Gresik’s fine dining debut in Pasadena when it opened in 2017.
In the three short ensuing years, which included a pandemic lockdown, Gresik’s quiet mastery in the kitchen has managed to garner a loyal cadre of enthusiasts, who have proven to be critical in sustaining the operation through the precarious course of the pandemic.
“About 80% of our to-go orders are repeat guests, (people who come) once a week,” Gresik says. “It’s pretty impressive. Our clientele, who come weekly or more, give us their support.”
This fact was verified by two local gourmands — Laura Bulgarelli and Keith Rouse — who brought up the topic of The Arbour quite randomly in a recent conversation.
“It is beyond divine,” Bulgarelli says.
She describes Gresik’s take on risotto, showered with in-season truffle shavings. Though truffles are now out of season and the abbreviated pandemic menu doesn’t include the labor-intensive risotto, the couple had more to say about Gresik’s work at The Arbour.
Rouse is a Pasadena-based lawyer and a former restaurateur who once owned and operated the Madeline Garden on Green Street.
“I like the fact that it’s farm-to-table fresh. It’s high quality. The chef clearly knows what he’s doing,” Rouse says.
A South Bay native who grew up in Torrance and Redondo Beach, Gresik initially trained at Cerritos College for baking and pastry.
“I’m a formally trained bakery and pastry chef,” Gresik says.
“That’s how I broke into the field. I was down in San Diego working at a few places and then I decided to go back to the Cordon Bleu.”
That was Gresik’s introduction to Pasadena, where he attended the vaunted and now-shuttered culinary academy for a second round of training in 2000. After graduating, he lived in Pasadena for a time and “bounced around” until 2015, when he, his wife Nancy and family returned to the City of Roses. The move sparked inspiration.
“We thought (Pasadena) needed another restaurant, and we thought our style of food would play well here,” he says.
Their instinct proved to be correct.
That style of food is based on fresh, organic ingredients.
“The culinary inspiration behind The Arbour is just utilizing the bounty of California,” Gresik emphasized. “From the local produce to the meat purveyors, I would say 90% of our product is organic.”
Pre-pandemic, Gresik routinely engaged with 20 to 30 local farms, most based in Ventura County.
“Now it’s about a dozen,” he says wistfully.
Before the pandemic, he helped sustain farmers.
“Now they take care of us.”
Jeff Stein of Scarborough Farms in Oxnard, for example, provides lettuces and herbs.
“He runs a great program there,” Gresik says.
The Arbour’s fresh meat is sourced from West Coast Meats and a broker in Newport Beach to stick with his mantra of sourcing local.
“If we want lamb, we use California rack of lamb,” he says, for example.
That commitment to fresh, locally sourced ingredients is combined with Gresik’s refined palate and technical mastery to produce the menu at The Arbour. His evolution as a chef began after his tour at the Cordon Bleu, with the help of an influential mentor.
“I spent seven years with Joachim Splichal of the Patina Group at the original Patina on Melrose and then at the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” he says.
Shortly after the onset of the pandemic lockdown, the now-legendary chef and restaurateur Splichal sold the Patina portfolio.
“He’s pretty much retired,” Gresik adds. “He sold the group. He’s focusing more on his wineries. He’s got the Domaine de Cala, a winery in Provence. We have two of his labels on our wine list. He had a great run.”
Gresik left Patina to helm Downtown’s lauded Drago Centro as executive chef for five years. There is another Pasadena connection here. The upscale Italian restaurant is owned by chef Celestino Drago, whose brother owns the popular local trattoria Celestino’s, just four blocks north of The Arbour on Lake Avenue.
“So, arguably, I worked with the best French chef and the best Italian chef in town,” Gresik says.
After settling in Pasadena and surveying the fine dining landscape, the Gresiks found the storefront on South Lake in The Arbour building, which prompted the restaurant’s name.
“We went ahead and built out a restaurant,” Gresik says. “We’re in the old building that used to be Express Clothing. We did a full build-out. It was 11 months from start to finish.”
The time and effort paid off. The dining room exudes a calm, casual elegance, and the expansive open kitchen seems, predictably, a chef’s dream come true.
“I already knew what I wanted,” Gresik says.
He engaged architect and designer Chris Keith and his firm, Spacecraft, because of Keith’s willingness to collaborate directly with Gresik’s vision.
“He was one of the only people who wanted to work with my design.”
The lovely result speaks for itself.
Although the now-empty dining room serves to stage takeout and delivery orders, Gresik has managed to create a lovely, 16-guest outdoor dining space on his relatively quiet strip of South Lake. Although the restaurant also boasts a generously expansive parking lot behind the venue, Gresik hasn’t yet been able to activate it for outdoor dining.
“We’re an independent restaurant that is nimble enough to make it,” says Gresik, who winnowed his staff from 50 to seven when he pivoted to takeout.
“We rolled with all the punches. Our strategy has been defense. We’d rather have a smaller footprint and be safe. (And) still be relevant and still serve our guests quality food.” So far so good.
Now about that food. Perusing the current menu, which has been slightly abbreviated during the pandemic, Gresik points to popular favorites.
For starters, the bacon tart ($13) baked in puff pastry with onion and served with béchamel sauce, Parmesan and wild greens is a standout. Perhaps a bit more on the farm-to-table theme is the shaved Brussels sprout salad ($14) with fresh goat cheese and toasted pine nuts tossed in a white wine vinaigrette. There’s also a classic Caesar ($13) and a beet salad with baby lacinato kale and golden raisins with a lemon vinaigrette and “hazelnut dust” ($13) on the menu.
Popular entrees include the sophisticated comfort of bucatini in vodka sauce ($25) with ground pancetta, tomato cream and Parmesan. There’s also sea bass with polenta cake, roasted fennel, baby bok choy, celery root puree and lemon foam ($35).
One of Gresik’s signature dishes is the duo of duck ($38), which features roasted duck breast with a leg confit served with peppercorn sauce, parsnip puree, baby turnips and spinach. There are also weekly specials. Recently, it was roasted rack of lamb with spiced couscous, fresh peppers, chickpeas, green onions and salsa verde ($49).
The specials include custom cocktails to go, which, Gresik adds, has helped. Lead bartender Nick Christianson doubles as a waiter.
Gresik is also quick to credit Mathew Haro, his chef de cuisine.
“He deserves a lot of kudos for being flexible,” Gresik says. “I give him a lot of credit. We’ve been working together for 10 years. You see the true colors of people in a crisis.
“We were lucky enough to get the PPP loans for the first and second rounds. That’s been a huge relief. But it doesn’t guarantee our livelihood or success, if you look at how it works. It’s eight weeks. But I will say, I’m very pleased with the city of Pasadena. The new mayor, Victor Gordo, he’s behind business.”
Gresik never shut down The Arbour, realizing he needed to cater to the attention of his loyal following. Otherwise, “there’s no guarantee they’ll come back,” Gresik asserts. Accordingly, The Arbour serves dinner seven nights a week. “The whole thing for us is to stay relevant.”
Guests can preorder online for takeout or delivery, and reservations are likely recommended for outdoor seating on-site. That said, these days it might just be the chef greeting and seating, as Gresik’s focus has shifted to front of house.
“I’ve been a chef for over 20 years,” he says. “It’s my first time being a waiter.”
Finally, as a grateful gesture to his loyal patrons and a sweet, exclusive gift to Arroyo readers, Gresik was persuaded to divulge The Arbour’s recipe for chocolate mousse.
527 S. Lake Avenue, Pasadena