Photo by Luis Chavez
Jean-Christophe Febbrari and Mathias Wakrat’s savoir vivre
By Frier McCollister
Jean-Christophe Febbrari and Mathias Wakrat opened their small, elegant French bistro Entre Nous on a shady stretch of Green Street in Pasadena in October 2018.
It marked a new turn for the duo that was preceded by an impressive 15-year run in Eagle Rock with their popular restaurant Café Beaujolais on Colorado Boulevard.
They cultivated a loyal following in Eagle Rock, and that helped launch the new Pasadena venue. Nevertheless, former enthusiasts of Café Beaujolais remain unaware of Entre Nous as the spawn of Febbrari and Wakrat. (A drummer, Wakrat is also the mastermind behind his eponymous alt-punk band with bassist Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine and guitarist Laurent Grangeon.)
“It’s a funny thing. Even today, almost every day (someone says), ‘You guys are here?’” Febbrari says about the restaurant.
The following from their run in Eagle Rock is extended and generational.
“We’ve known people who have followed us for years,” Febbrari says. “They are friends. From their first date at Beaujolais to their wedding, and now their kids are driving around. It’s a beautiful journey.”
Entre Nous evokes the ambiance of a classic bistro in its food and service. That said, there is a decided culinary nod to Provence and the south of France, where the two partners were born and raised.
Though the pair are natives of the same region in France, they met in the kitchen of Café Beaujolais in 2002, when they were employees working for the original owner.
“I was a dishwasher. I had just arrived in 2002. We met there in the kitchen,” Febbrari confirms.
“We both grew up on the Riviera. Mathias is from Saint-Tropez and Aix. I’m from Sanary, a small fishing town. We know the same spots (in France), but we met here. It’s a funny thing. It’s a journey. We didn’t have a restaurant background. We met here.”
The two budding restaurateurs bonded quickly. By 2004, they had hatched a plan with a silent partner investor and took over the ownership and operations at Café Beaujolais. Under the attention and guidance of Febbrari and Wakrat, the bistro soon became a local institution for reliably excellent and authentic French cuisine.
The decision to decamp from Café Beaujolais and jump start the operation at Entre Nous in Pasadena came somewhat impulsively, when the lovely and storied location on Green Street became available.
“We saw this place and we fell in love. Everything was beautiful. It was pure instinct,” Febbrari recalls.
With their staff intact — many of whom were nearly 20-year veterans at Beaujolais — the intrepid restaurateurs transformed the space from scratch.
“If you build it, they will come,” he says. “It was a bit of that magic. Everything we did ourselves: the menu, the artwork. We’re hard workers. And we’re here. We’re a very small family. We understand each other without saying anything.”
Previously the location was occupied by Racion, the popular Catalan tapas bar engineered by Teresa Montano, who moved on to open the critically acclaimed Otono in Highland Park.
Before that, the Venetian trattoria Tre Venezie filled the building. Febbrari describes the presence of Entre Nous as “a tribute” to its predecessors, each of whom also melded traditional regional cuisines with a sense of freshness, originality and refined technique.
“We closed Beaujolais on Sunday the 21st of October and we opened Entre Nous the next day on the 22nd. We were open for seven nights a week for seven months straight to meet and greet and understand the clientele,” Febbrari notes. “We are just like our customers. We eat here every night.”
Unlike the fine dining trend, Entre Nous has never been “chef driven.” Its reputation rests on the consistent quality of the experience. Entre Nous’ executive chef, Paul Carrier, joined the team during the pandemic.
“It’s interesting we have a chef with a French name, but he’s from Philadelphia,” Febbrari says.
“He came along, and his philosophy and passion impressed us. He had a very healthy approach and knew his craft.”
The menu at Entre Nous hits all the classical notes, often with a Provençal accent. There are charcuterie ($30) and cheese boards ($19/$27), featuring rotating hand-selected curations from the chef.
Appetizers include stalwarts like soupe a l’oignon gratinee or French onion soup ($17) and escargots de bourgogne ($19), snails served in their shells with garlic butter and pastis.
Brandade de morue au gratin de pommes de terre ($20) is a Provençal specialty with whipped salt cod and potatoes served with rosemary flatbread.
Recently added to the menu is another classic, tartare de filet de boeuf or steak tartare ($25), macerated with fresh beets and bone marrow.
Notable menu entrees at Entre Nous include filet mignon a la Bordelaise ($44) with wild mushrooms and asparagus and a red wine and shallot reduction; la daube Provençale ($36), braised short rib with potato gnocchi and carrot puree; moules Provençale ($30), steamed in white wine, garlic and tomatoes; and poulet Basquaise ($34), Basque-style chicken, complemented with housemade pork sausage, green apple and espelette peppers.
Another recent addition is the 24-ounce ribeye steak for two people ($105), served with potato gratin, garden vegetables, braised pearl onions and a compound butter of herbes de Provence.
Reliable side dishes like ratatouille ($10), grilled eggplant with tapenade ($8), potato gratin ($10) and, of course, pommes frites ($7) round out the dinner fare.
There are six dessert options all priced at $15, including the favorites tarte tatin, cherry clafoutis and profiteroles.
Kir aperitifs and four champagnes grace the beverage and wine list. There is a small but diverse selection of reds and whites from France and California. Most are accessibly priced, and all are available by the glass or bottle.
Except for the frites, it’s difficult to imagine any of the menu items served in a Styrofoam takeout box. Without any easy pivot to takeout service, fine dining restaurants were hit particularly hard at the onset of the pandemic.
“We cried first and then we prayed, and I sold one of my kids,” Febbrari jokes. “We closed until June. Our food does not go out well. We had some great customers really supporting us.”
They experimented with meal kits and wine delivery, while engaging in community action.
“We did some donation food. We delivered food to ERs. That was a beautiful thing,” Febbrari recalls.
When outdoor dining was allowed, Entre Nous had few obvious options. They started with a couple of tables on the sidewalk. The escrow company next door offered the use of the adjacent parking lot.
“Ask for forgiveness, not for permission,” Febbrari quips. Outdoor lights were strung and heaters were installed to create a strikingly lovely dining patio.
“We realized Green Street is the most beautiful street in Pasadena,” he adds.
Slowly a sense of normalcy is returning to Entre Nous. Wakrat and Febbrari remain as survivors and stakeholders.
“We never lost faith,” Febbrari says. “Matt has a daughter, and I have two young sons. We’re family men. We were resilient and hoped for the best. We feel privileged. We’re grateful. We never took anything for granted. We did everything we could. We did our part. We are part of the community. We are alive because people took risks to come out and support us. It’s been a humbling experience. We just want to thank the community.”
As a token of that gratitude, Entre Nous extends a traditional recipe from Provence to the Arroyo community.