by Merrill Schindler
The simple fact that Mark Peel is the chef behind Prawn is certainly enough to get me through the door with all proper, and even undue haste. (Indeed, the full name of the restaurant is: “Prawn Coastal Cuisine by Mark Peel.”)
Mark Peel is a culinary icon in Southern California — a chef who’s been in the kitchen at some of our most influential restaurants. He began as a sous chef working under Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison, and then followed Puck to the original Spago. He cooked at La Tour d’Argent and Le Moulins de Mougins in France — a pair of legendary dining destinations — before returning to work under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. And with his former wife, Nancy Silverton, he opened Campanile and La Brea Bakery.
His impact on how we eat runs deep. And he recognizes where we’re going enough to go down-market, to open Bombo in the Grand Central Market — which evolved into Prawn. And now, he’s followed that first Prawn with a second course in One Colorado in Old Pasadena — a casual destination for some of the best seafood served in town.
(It also follows in the footsteps of the many high-end chefs finding happiness with downscale restaurants. Just think of the acclaim Mark’s former partner, Nancy Silverton, has found slinging pizza. There’s joy in dumping white tablecloths.)
Prawn — which sits in the space that was last home to the very good Escuela Taqueria — is a casual fish house in the style of New Orleans and San Francisco and Seattle, a fine place to go for a meal of undeniably fresh seafood, eaten at a counter where you can watch the chefs at work, or at tables not far distant.
There are oysters on the half shell (or at least will be eventually; the oyster bar wasn’t yet up and running as of a recent visit), along with clams on the half shell — and a lot of dishes far more involved.
(And yes, added onto the newly opened Fishwives, along with Lost at Sea, and Old Pasadena is turning into a major destination for seafood. There’s a trend at work here, going someplace very tasty. And good for you, too. As long as it’s not deep-fried, seafood is pretty healthy stuff.)
This is a restaurant where the commitment to fish is almost complete, though those who aren’t seafood fans do have options — custom-made grain bowls using barley and quinoa, and a choice of six veggies, and four proteins — including spicy shrimp just to stay within the theme.
There’s also a Scottish salmon bowl on brown rice and barley. And for those who find even that too fishy, there’s a fried chicken sandwich, and a shredded chicken or tofu salad.
A fried chicken salad from Mark Peel for just $10? That’s almost enough to make me pass on the fish. Almost, but not quite.
Which brings me to a finite assortment of temptations — but temptations nonetheless. Chilled avocado and shrimp soup? Of course, how wonderful in concept — and how much better even in actuality. It’s a remarkable cold soup, tasting of yogurt, mint and cucumber — dazzling … and just $6.
From there, it’s a matter of how casual you want it to be — though most everything is casual. From the Thai flavored lobster roll, crab salad roll and fried shrimp and oyster roll, to the shrimp and crab soba noodle salad, the very good (and spicy!) Veracruz shrimp salad — easy is the name of the cuisine.
Even if you move to the Seattle fish stew (a bath of shrimp, squid, clams, mussels and salmon in lobster broth) or the shrimp, mussel, pork sausage and chicken paella (a paella for just $14!) — easy is the name of the game.
Of course there’s a world-class clam chowder — made with a kabocha squash puree for a very notable change of pace, which makes it both a chowder, and something that’s hard to define at the same time.
And of course there are fish ’n’ chips — with fried potatoes, cucumber yogurt and pickled veggies. There’s a shrimp and chicken caldo picante as well, a shrimp butter boil, and spicy scallops, all of which are $15 or less. (The most expensive item on the menu, at $19, is the Thai lobster roll. Because it’s lobster, don’t you know.)
There’s no wine or beer. But Mark Peel does make some fine lemonades, flavored with ginger and passion fruit. A honey and mint limeade as well. And a ginger beer.
Prawn isn’t a seafood restaurant quite like any other in town, largely because Mark Peel isn’t a chef like any other in town. He was a pioneer back in the day. And lo these many years later, he’s still a pioneer. And Old Pasadena is better for his passion.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 3 stars
Address: One Colorado, 16 Miller Alley, Old Pasadena
Information: 626-219-6115, www.prawncoastal.com
When: Lunch and dinner, every day.
Details: Soft drinks. No reservations
Atmosphere: As befits a “Coastal Casual” seafood cafe, this One Colorado newbie is easygoing and pleasant, with a counter where you can watch the chefs prepare caldos and boils, and a celebrity cache thanks to uber chef Mark Peel, one of the founders of the fabled Campanile in Hollywood.
Prices: About $20 per person.
Suggested dishes: Thai lobster roll ($19), crab salad roll ($15), fried shrimp and oyster roll ($14), Scottish salmon bowl ($13), shrimp and crab soba noodle salad ($13), Veracruz shrimp salad ($12), Seattle fish stew ($14), paella ($14), clam chowder ($9), fish ’n’ chips ($12), caldo picante ($14), shrimp butter boil ($14), spicy scallops ($15), oysters ($14-$20, per half dozen), clams on the half shell ($8), jumbo shrimp cocktail ($15), steamed mussels ($9).