Prawn Coastal Casual’s Fare is Nutritious, Complex and Satisfying

Pasadena Weekly - November 30, 2017

Of all the food trends that cropped up in the last couple of years, my favorite is the bowl trend. I was never that kid who separated the foods on my plate so they wouldn’t touch each other. I liked to cut everything up and see how different things tasted together by the forkful. I also loved seafood. I mean Gorton’s fish sticks were da bomb. So I’m a big fan of the bowlfuls of seafood-centric deliciousness at the brand new restaurant Prawn in One Colorado Plaza.

Prawn is a fast-casual eatery in the old Johnny Rocket’s location. The kitchen and dining area have been flip-flopped, but the restaurant still has fun, diner-like bar seating, low tables and big windows to watch the hubbub outside. The new aqua and white decor is as fresh as sea spray with hand-painted murals on the wall featuring huge squid and other sea creatures. Wall tiles like mermaid fins and an Escher-esque tile rug add color and texture to the space. The whole room smells like the freshest seafood market in Marseilles mixed with paella spices and rich broth.

Owner and chef Mark Peel, a veritable legend in the food business due to stints at Chez Panisse, Campanile, Ma Maison, Spago and others, slips through the open kitchen like a mako shark, moving among the crisply dressed, tightly choreographed staff testing dishes. He opened the first Prawn (formerly Bombo) downtown in the heart of Grand Central Market. The menu, prices and portions are the same at both locations, but at the Pasadena diner you get the added perk of rustic ceramic bowls and plates, not paper pulp like downtown. You also don’t have to deal with the hectic crowds and parking of Grand Central.

The menu is largely seafood-based with the occasional chicken and tofu proteins thrown in. In the past, an American fish meal was typically imagined as a nice filet on a plate, maybe with a sauce, surrounded by a vegetable and a starch. Nothing wrong with that. But Chef Peel has brought it into modern-day by cutting up the fish and adding it to grain bowls, stews, chowders, brothy soups, fresh greens and noodle salads. Everything we tried was delicious, beautifully balanced and deeply flavored.

The shrimp and crab soba noodle salad ($13) is great from beginning to end. Shrimp and crab are tossed with soba noodles and perfectly portioned napa cabbage, mustard greens, peanuts, shiitake mushrooms, kombu kelp and a little bit of fish roe. With slightly sweet, slightly salty top notes, the textures lend a gratifying bottom note.

I have no doubt their famous Seattle fish stew and saffron-y paella with house-made pork sausage are delicious. But I opted for the Caldo Picante ($14), a spicy soup redolent of Prawn’s complex shrimp broth simmered in tilting steam kettles. The bowl of warm goodness features shrimp and shredded chicken floating in the not-too-spicy broth with black beans, roasted yams and onions, bitter mustard greens, sweet tomato and circles of raw okra (the only time I’ve ever liked okra).

We also tried one of their featured grain bowls. You can customize your grain bowl any way you like by choosing up to four veggies and one protein served atop a barley-quinoa mix tossed in a roasted garlic-basil dressing. The vegetables include turmeric roasted cauliflower, kabocha squash, broccolini, spiced almonds, stewed chickpeas and roasted shiitakes. (Wouldn’t you love to have all these things in your refrigerator ready for the next bowl?)  The proteins are chicken, shrimp, tofu or fried egg. Simple and nourishing.

Unable to decide, I went with the pre-determined Scottish salmon grain bowl ($13). This one has brown rice and barley with yummy pickled onions and cabbage in a shiitake-seaweed broth. The steamed Scottish salmon on top is so delicate and light in its pinkness as to be almost creamy.

I wished I had room for their incredible looking Thai lobster roll ($19). Chunks of Maine lobster stewed in a curry lobster broth are served on a soft roll with spicy coleslaw and rouille, a Provencal red chile-garlic-breadcrumb spread, reimagined here with bacon. How could that be bad? The other sandwiches look equally tasty: Fried shrimp and oysters, blue crab salad and beer-battered fried chicken.

If you’re just hankering for simple raw or steamed shellfish, they’ve got your back. Oysters from Virginia, Baja and British Columbia are served on the half-shell singly or by the half or full dozen, with fresh cocktail sauce and ginger mignonette. A big pot of steamed mussels with scallion oil, pickled radish and roe would be good after a movie especially with a cold draft beer. Alas, they don’t have cold draft beer at the moment but the gleaming tap spigots promise quite a few choices in the near future.

With the recently opened restaurants Fishwives and Lost at Sea, Pasadena is fast becoming the fish capital of the San Gabriel Valley. Perhaps this is why Peel opened Prawn here, the second of many he hopes. Or perhaps it’s because Mark Peel was born right here in Pasadena and wanted to get back to his roots. Either way, they know their customer base, and Prawn is a nice fast-casual addition to the social scene that is One Colorado.

Despite the fact that sustainably raised seafood and uncommon sea and land vegetables can be costly, the folks at Prawn have wisely kept the menu prices just south of “that’s too dear.” It may be more than my weekday lunch budget, but if I could I’d eat here every day. The food is nutritious, complex, satisfying and like the sea creatures on the walls, just a little bit wondrous.