By Brianna Chu
Even just from the outside, the Raymond 1886 isn’t your average restaurant: the place is literally a cottage, not to mention its hard-to-spot location on Fair Oaks. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a well-kept Craftsman bungalow, set with dark brown door frames, brick, and olive green panels. Inside, the warm, woodsy color palette continues in the dark wood accents, stud-edged leather booths, and the golden glow from lamp-like lighting fixtures.
The Raymond recently updated their bar before doing the same with their restaurant and food menu. I’m not a drinker, so I didn’t expect to find anything at the bar that was aimed at me. However, I was delighted to learn that they make some wonderful mocktails; and we were presented with two refreshing tropical-themed mocktails! The first was a veritable tropical berry heaven: blueberry, raspberry, pineapple, a dash of lemon and orange juice, topped off with some soda water over shaved ice – and somehow, I could taste each fruit at the same time! The second was a tart and refreshing mix of pineapple, grapefruit, muddled mint, and the fizz of soda water.
The newest updates to the Raymond, though, are to the menu. New Executive Chef Jon Hung owned and operated his own bagel shop for a decade or so before turning full-time to a career as a chef, putting him in a unique position to understand the running of a restaurant from both an operational as well as a culinary perspective. Hung practices tough love in the kitchen, making sure the younger chefs have at least one item on the menu. As he says, he’s training the next generation of chefs – so he is passing on the lessons he learned at Common Lot, a New Jersey restaurant awarded four stars by the New York Times and the restaurant Hung worked at before coming to the Raymond. The Common Lot head chefs pushed Hung similarly, promising to write him up unless he had a dish on the next menu. It’s tough, but supportive, love aimed at cultivating an atmosphere of creativity and collaboration. In the menu, Hung plays off the cozy cabin feel of the restaurant, elevating home-style, comforting foods into the kinds of dishes not easily replicable at home. Each dish is crafted with thought and care; he told me that the New York strip, for instance, has been in the back of his mind for seven or eight months. Every little touch was carefully considered: the scalloped potatoes? Made with konbu, a flavor that ties in well with the shitake jus and mushrooms…which are themselves the perfect companion to steak. While loathe to call it as such, Hung would classify the cuisine of the Raymond 1886’s menu as New American; sort of the culinary equivalent of saying, “Don’t box me in!” Hung and his chefs pull from everywhere, and the results are never boring or mundane.
For our starters, we enjoyed the steak tartare and the hamachi kama. Served with toast triangles, the steak tartare was fresh, marinated and served in dressing of soy sauce, blood orange segments, cilantro, and sesame seeds, among other seasonings. The segments of blood orange provided a sweetness with its acidity, which more traditional tartares made with Worcestershire sauce, for instance, don’t have. The miso-glazed yellowtail collar was perfectly cooked, moist and soft as butter, and enhanced perfectly by the kick of lemon and the characteristic salt from the miso. The slight bitterness of the blistered shishito peppers that accompanied the hamachi kama was balanced by the peppers’ sweetness, and a delicious addition!
We chose the pan fried pork chop and the roasted duck leg as our main courses – a decision I can heartily recommend! The pork chop was served on a bed of barley, lentils, and other vegetables, surrounded by a sage au jus. The barley and lentil mixture is thick and rich, reminiscent of a stew, and the effect was enhanced by the au jus. The still-crisp pickled fennel and fermented apples served atop the pork chop were an unexpected but fitting surprise! They both complemented the pork – the crunch and the vegetables’ pop of sweet and sour balanced out the heavier flavor and texture of the pork. The slices of pork chop were tender and not dry, which I personally worry about with pork. It’s the kind of dish that sticks to your bones, in the good way. It’s perfect for a cold night, when you want something hearty and satisfying. The roasted duck leg was served atop roasted potatoes with a creamy dill sauce and sweet and tangy braised red cabbage. All the natural flavor of the duck was enhanced without it ever being gamey or dry; the fat and skin were crisp, while the meat was super flavorful, devastatingly tender, and gently pink inside. If you love duck, you have to try the Raymond’s duck leg!
No meal is complete without dessert, and at the Raymond, they’re crafted by Pastry Chef Alexa Clark. Clark has spent 10 years so far as a pastry chef, and has received attention for her creativity. She takes dessert seriously – she doesn’t want patrons to walk away feeling like the culmination to their meal was in any way lackluster. Even desserts need to have balance in flavor, she told me, so her desserts are not simply sweet. Her particular favorite currently is the passion fruit custard, made with cashew butter for creaminess while keeping it happily gluten- and dairy-free! Clark and Hung met at Common Lot, so there’s a lot of trust between them in the kitchen – they each turn to the other when stuck in the creative process, and Hung says that she’s the first person whose opinion he seeks to bounce ideas off of, and vice versa. That they both moved from Common Lot to the West Coast to embark upon their new culinary journey here in Pasadena was certainly no fluke, either. When I asked her why both she and Hung chose to move to California, Clark revealed an ulterior motive: they’re not just partners in the kitchen, but out of it, too! Personally, there’s a real charm to a restaurant that’s a house having their kitchen run by a real-life powerhouse culinary couple!
When Clark said she wanted desserts to be as balanced in flavor as main courses, I didn’t quite appreciate how seriously she meant her statement. Her recommended dessert, the passion fruit custard, cycled through salty, sweet, and sour in every bite. Every spoonful was a journey and an experience, and her attention to flavor balance showed – when I thought my bite was mostly overtaken with the sourness of the passion fruit, the sweetness of the coconut or the saltiness of the cashews would emerge to pull my tastebuds another direction. I usually have to be in the right mood for a fruity dessert, but as soon as I took a bite of this custard I was a fan! Our server also recommended the chocolate bavarois to us, so, as dutiful chocolate-lovers, we had to try it. The heavenly chocolate bavarois sat next to a scoop of homemade vanilla Tahitian ice cream, which was perfectly smooth but also so light and airy. The graham cracker and pink peppercorn crumble the two sat atop brought texture and a slightly spicy balance to the dessert; but don’t worry, the peppercorn wasn’t noticeable when you eat all the components together (if you eat it by itself, you will taste the peppercorn, but why would you do that?). The care and attention Clark dedicates to ensuring all the components complement each other was evident in both desserts – and like the custard, the bavarois was gone in fewer than three minutes. We demolished these confections.
And, friends? This is the winter menu, so swing by the Raymond and try it out for yourself before that sweet spring menu drops!