Chino, California is best known as the hometown of Ryan from The O.C., or perhaps as the agricultural area responsible for the pleasant smell of fertilizers (reminiscent of Limburger cheese) to which Claremont students wake up approximately once a month. Although the town is a mere 15-minute drive south down Central Avenue through the ever-so-scenic city of Montclair, Claremont seems as vibrant as the Sunset Strip compared to the ghost town action going down nightly in Chino. Thankfully, one Chino restaurant aims higher than the rest of the ho-hum fray—a neighborhood bistro with slightly ambitious cooking. Despite the fact that Claremont is home to five colleges and a top-notch farmer’s market, the same just doesn’t exist in our town. What Claremont needs is what Chino has: Owen’s Bistro.
It’s not like the competition is very fierce for Owen’s. Open since 2003, Owen’s was established by James and Denise Kelly, mainly in accordance with Chino’s efforts to transform its downtown into a nightlife destination for locals. Before the pair married, James ran an outrageously successful (and from what I hear, quite delicious) deli in Chino, a town that appreciated a great meatball sub at lunch but not pork belly with panzanella at dinner. At the city’s request, the deli morphed into a neighborhood bistro, and the couple named the restaurant after its young son Owen. There is no doubt that this is a very personal restaurant. Some nights Denise is the lone server, sommelier, and hostess, while James does the cooking in the postage stamp-sized kitchen. Her knowledge of and passion for the menu and wine list and her desire to please every customer make me wish she could teach all waiters how service is supposed to be.
On busy weekend nights there is a little more help, but this is the type of tiny establishment where a party of four showing up without a reservation can wreak havoc upon the restaurant’s organization. The service sometimes tends to hunker down, certainly slowing the progress of meals, as one might expect from a restaurant with a too-small wait staff and kitchen relative to the ambition of the cuisine and the number of diners. The newer servers can also be a little unpolished; when asked which dessert to order, our server’s reply was to have this one because he hadn’t yet tried the other one. Well, that helps…
James Kelly calls his cooking “progressive American with a sense of humor.” I wasn’t exactly dying of laughter reading the menu, but there is certainly a playful element in many of his dishes. Kelly is in a tricky predicament as a chef. His lofty, slightly cutting-edge ambitions would fit right in at a Manhattan bistro, but somehow he instead must balance the non-adventurous palates of the Chino Valley with the few diners who long for some sort of sophistication.
Yet his cooking, as adventurous and delicious as it can be, is often hit-or-miss. The starters, especially, must be chosen carefully. The bone marrow appetizer’s marrow meat was dry, and the toast over which it was meant to be slathered was covered with an overpoweringly sweet tomato jam. Cured proscuitto, bleu cheese, and walnuts top a very ordinary spinach salad bathed in a nondescript tomato dressing that could have been assembled at Collins Dining Hall. In fact, the only satisfactory tomato-influenced item I sampled was one night’s soup du jour, yet even this moderately tasty tomato soup lacked interest. Instead, start with the fried brussel sprouts with creamy parmiggiano reggiano and lemon aioli or the warm cauliflower tossed with fried olives and mozzarella. For some absurd reason, garlic shoestring fries show up as a starter as well. After an especially long wait for the first course on one visit, these impossibly thin fries were given to our table, complements of the chef. They were, to be fair, delicious and addicting.
Addicting, that is, until the entrée of perfectly tender beef cheeks arrived, topped with a foot-high mound of these same shoestring fries. All of a sudden the kind gesture turned into shoestring fry overkill; I now never want to see a shoestring fry again. On these recent nippy autumn nights, however, Kelly’s braised beef cheeks absolutely hit the spot, hearty without being heavy, and accompanied with a fierce horseradish sauce and carrots roasted to the consistency of mashed potatoes. It’s a fantastic dish when paired with one of the many great selections on the red-heavy wine list.
Kelly’s interpretation of that Southern favorite, chicken and waffles, places the moist fried chicken atop a pillow-soft (and pillow-sized) herb waffle, with green beans, sour cream instead of butter, and a maple rum reduction. Although delicious, the chicken and waffle combination yearned for even more syrupy sweetness. The pork belly is terrific with a horseradish sauce, sitting atop a bed of panzanella, and a side of broccoli. The signature “Camping Trip” looks like a forest from Redwood National Park: greens mixed with a bacon dressing cover seared salmon that sits atop a hot river stone. It’s a fascinating idea, but ultimately the salmon itself is bit plain under the foliage. The bacon dressing for the salmon was too light to be very noticeable, and as many brownie points as I give for using a hot river stone, I didn’t exactly taste or notice anything special about the salmon’s texture or flavor as a result. While the salmon’s surface was delightfully crispy, the interior flesh was slightly overcooked. A few pastas are featured on the non-pasta nights, but steer away from these: they’re the least exciting of the entrée choices.
Desserts range significantly as well. New York cheesecake is as light as angel’s food cake, even if it’s teamed up with a somewhat bland dulce de leche. Pumpkin bread pudding is textbook, although it tastes nothing like pumpkin. The best and most inventive dish is the spicy chocolate panna cotta topped with saffron ice cream. The creamy, not-too-gelatinous panna cotta tastes of a strong Mexican hot chocolate and shares the plate with a wonderfully fragrant homemade scoop. This is an exemplary dish, better than almost any other dessert I’ve had in the past year anywhere from San Francisco to Paris. Also offered is a light, fluffy bowl of not-very-dark chocolate mousse studded with toasted coconut shreds, but there’s no reason to choose this over the mythical spicy chocolate panna cotta. It’s truly a dessert masterpiece, complex without losing its humble roots—a sensational conclusion to a meal.
Owen’s contemporary surroundings complement its food; with the spacious patio outside or the cozy, exposed brick wall interior, Chino feels like the up-and-coming hip Warehouse district of L.A. inside, without the hipsters. Try to visit on a night when the guitarist who plays folk versions of “Poker Face” and “California Gurls” is there.
The restaurant is open only for dinner, and the price and style of the menu depend on the night one chooses to dine. Tuesdays are a special-bargain, prix fixe pasta night that seems comparable to La Picolletta’s in Claremont. Kelly’s family ran an Italian restaurant in Chicago, where he grew up, so it’s not like a stranger is attempting to tackle Italy’s wonderful cuisine. However, a meal of soup or salad, penne marinara, and vanilla ice cream with fresh berries is a waste of this talent. That’s what Olive Garden is for.
Wednesday through Saturday are strictly three-course prix fixe menus, with Wednesday and Thursday weighing in at $22.50 per person and Friday and Saturday at $29 per person. The portions are not Cheesecake Factory-sized, but nobody will go home hungry. It’s one of the great debates of the culinary world as to whether it’s right to force diners to order prix fixe. As exciting as theood can be, many people cannot finish all three courses and would prefer just to dine la carte. A choice between prix fixe and la carte would be a wise route for Owen’s to take, no matter how much of a bargain the prix fixe offers.
Yet despite its faults, this is the type of restaurant the world needs more of: run by a husband and wife, with the cuisine both comforting and original. It’s so refreshing to see an emerging chef’s passion for the art of cooking shared in a neighborhood bistro that is clearly a labor of love. Though most dishes need a tweak or two, Owen’s is this close to becoming the next secret bistro to hit the big time, and luckily, it is not far from Claremont. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Owen’s open up on Melrose Avenue, charging twice as much in a year. Now, if only we could get an ambitious neighborhood bistro like this in Claremont.