La Grande Orange Café is named for the “big orange” groves that once bordered the Rose City and debuted on March 17 in the main terminal of the shuttered Santa Fe Railway Depot (1935), combining history and market fresh ingredients on a level that’s almost unheard of in the San Gabriel Valley city.
LGO Hospitality founder Bob Lynn, a former Houston’s Executive Vice President who opened 13 links in the chain, has lived in Los Angeles the past seven years, but started developing in Phoenix because he owned the real estate. Lynn worked with partners Sandy Henry, Craig and Kris DeMarco to create a culinary cluster along the city’s North 40th Street dividing line: La Grande Orange Pizzeria, Chelsea’s Kitchen, Radio Milano and Postino Winecafe (in an old post office). Lynn stressed, “They’re all different. We don’t take the same thing and stamp it out again.”
In order to build the mixed-use development that surrounds La Grande Orange Café, the train depot had to be dismantled and moved across the street to Central Park. Once the building was back in place, to get the layout right, LGO designed and redesigned the floor plan 11 times. Lynn said, “We started with pencil sketches on scale and took it to 3D CAD, then got a bucket of chalk from Toys ‘R Us and drew it life size on the floor.” Spacecraft designer Kristofer Keith energized the white walls with a more festive color scheme, to accent the original wall tiles, light fixtures and cedar ceiling. An open kitchen is situated behind the depot’s old ticket counter. The African mahogany bar in back has huge windows looking out on to the patio, offering views of passing Gold Line trains.
Executive Chef Scott Malin previously worked at every LGO establishment in Phoenix, front and back of the house. The Cleveland native graduated from Johnson & Wales in North Miami and worked for Morton’s before meeting Bob Lynn at a baby shower. At La Grande Orange Café, Malin adheres to Lynn’s imperative that “cooking is honest and from scratch,” with fish and vegetables that change every day chuck ground to order for burgers, and fish filleted under refrigeration. Nothing’s frozen.
Sky-high deviled eggs ($6) arrived dusted with paprika, sprinkled with bacon bits and chives, served on custom-made plank with six impressions, designed to cradle each savory egg.
Crisped Acqua Pazza ($17) featured a rectangular filet of Pacific white fish, browned and crisp on top, that came apart in sheets at the touch of a fork. The fish was plated on roasted fingerling and purple potatoes, sautéed spinach, beet greens and explosively sweet roasted cherry tomatoes.
Dixie Pan-Fried Chicken ($18) employed juicy boneless breast meat, a heaping pile of mashed potatoes, pan gravy and market vegetables (green beans, carrots and bell peppers), capped with a fresh-baked cinnamon roll that belongs in the upper echelon of L.A. rolls.
Despite the unflattering, poorly-lit photo, the Short Ribs ($19) were a rich brown color, braised until tender and juicy and served with carrots, peas, potatoes, herbs and red wine jus.
The generous portion of Mac n’ Cheese ($3) – actually fusilli n’ cheese – was blanketed with American white cheddar that filled the nooks of the pasta.
Olive Oil Cake ($7), based on a traditional recipe from olive farmers in southern France who didn’t have butter handy, utilized olive oil to keep the cake nice and moist. The slab was served with house-made berry preserves and olive oil-streaked whipped cream.
Key Lime Pie ($8) was very good, with a graham cracker crust, a pleasantly tart layer of lime, and a thick layer of white chocolate whipped cream dusted with lime zest. Fresh raspberries completed the dessert.
Chocolate Budino ($6) was a rich chocolate pudding with a dollop of espresso meringue that was clearly singed with a kitchen torch.
The Turtle Sundae ($8), topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, came with a pitcher of hot fudge sauce, a dish of sugar-tossed pecans and shaker of rainbow sprinkles. It was a classic take on an all-American dessert.
To build anticipation for lunch, which will feature sandwiches on English muffins, LGO hands out individually wrapped muffins with the check, one per household.
A master baker in Phoenix formulated the muffins. They’re grilled, not baked. Even the morning after, they were nice and fluffy, infinitely better than Thomas’.
LGO Hospitality is far from finished in Los Angeles. They intend to open La Grande Orange Grocery in Santa Monica later in 2008, before debuting another Radio Milano next to La Grande Orange Café, in the train depot’s former luggage room. After that, Lynn will return home to Chicago, partnering with legendary restaurateur Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You on an American brasserie called Hub 51, which should debut by early 2009. In the meantime, thanks to La Grande Orange Café, LGO is off to a good start in their expansion outside Phoenix.