To surrender into the flow of Agnes — an ambitious, ever-crowded, 4-month-old restaurant and market on a bustling block in Old Pasadena — order the dish that best embodies its rhythm and wit: loaded baked potato dumplings.
The dumplings are gnocchi, the kind shaped like firm pillows that dissolve into clouds as soon as they hit the palate. In their wake come texture after texture and flavor after flavor. Sour cream, chives and curls of white cheddar set the baseline richness and pop. Hunks of lardon bring a bacony whomp; they’re offset by a mulchy, acidic riff on salsa made with roasted broccoli. A garnish of extra-thin shoe-string potatoes adds crunch and smartly reintroduces the starchy goodness that vanishes when the dumplings melt away.
It’s conceptual fun, the loaded baked potato as Pop art. A lot of moving parts produce easy deliciousness. The dumplings usually arrive on china patterned with blowsy pastel florals, a visual that reinforces the playfulness.
Thomas Kalb and Vanessa Tilaka, the married chefs and owners who run Agnes, make a running theme out of these kinds of skillful larks. Kalb runs the kitchen. He grew up in Iowa and uses a populist sort of white Midwestern culture as a springboard for his eclectic menu, though more in respectful homage than spoof. (The restaurant is named after Kalb’s grandmother, Mary Agnes.) A handful of corn nuts scatter across meat and cheese boards. A winking spin on savory eclairs includes chicken mousse piped in billows like wedding cake icing over cornbread sticks and topped with preserved cherries — the intense dark ones, happily, rather than the Day-Glo variety of maraschinos.
Architecture studio Ora (the team behind now-closed Auburn, one of L.A.’s most stunning restaurant interiors of the last decade) wove the Middle Americana motif into Agnes’ designer farmhouse look: knotty exposed cathedral rafters and craggy red brick, collages of family photos on the walls, a back patio with a garden-like serenity, a cross between a chandelier and an art installation suspended over the market’s cheese counter that brings to mind rows of wooden milk crates.
Agnes bills itself equally as a restaurant and a “cheesery,” the latter being Tilaka’s focus. Its presence doesn’t saturate the menu, but cheese certainly shows up in its many guises. Pantaleo, a firm aged goat’s milk variety from Sardinia, punctuates an autumn salad of pear, chicories and mustard vinaigrette. King’s Ransom, a semi-soft, cider-washed cow’s milk wheel made in Wisconsin, plugs easily into a mix of winter squashes given a sweet and sour treatment. Nutty, bright-orange Mimolette steps in for parm in a madcap take on a Caesar starring broccoli with wine-soaked golden raisins.
The Midwestern refrain crescendos in the plate of cheese curds, fried so they’re melty rather than squeaky and presented with ingredients that suggest Buffalo-style wings: carrots glazed in hot sauce, pickled celery with dill and blue cheese dip. It’s clever and satisfyingly poised between overkill and balance. It disappears fast.
Kalb and Tilaka met while working at Italian favorite Flour + Water in San Francisco; pasta was always a given at Agnes. Kalb keeps the selection at three or four. He’s tinkered with the loaded baked potato dumplings: An early version had crisped pancetta, and the lardons are better, oomphier. A forthright red sauce variation usually stays in the mix. Lately it’s radiatori (radiator-shaped squiggles) in marinara with pecorino and burrata. A third pasta rolls with the California season: English peas and smoked black cod tangled in bucatini in late spring, cavatelli with sweet corn and Jimmy Nardello peppers in high summer, and currently rigatoni with Honeynut squash, sausage, mushrooms, walnuts and sage, the very essence of fall.
Entree platters meant for sharing concentrate on meats cooked on the open kitchen’s roaring hearth: bone-in ribeye slaked with herb butter, whole grilled chicken perfumed with smoke, pork shoulder with picnic fixings (brioche toast, baked beans, barbecue sauce and pickles). The execution is competent all around, though my attention and appetite lean toward the smaller, more eccentric dishes.
Dinner is a mob scene, even through the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, with tables usually booked out weeks in advance. The crowds know what’s up: Evening shows off the promise of Agnes at its most fully realized in every way, including a cheerful and informed crew of servers. Showing up without a reservation means taking your chances for a bar seat; you might feel how busy the staff is there, juggling drink orders while trying to pace your meal.
Lunchtime service scales the menu down to a manageable selection of salads and hot and cold sandwiches. Platters of cured meats and cheeses probably are loaded with crackers and other nibbles, maybe overly so. One option includes a lone tin of seafood conserva, often sardines, and adding two or more varieties to the lineup might be even more compelling.
The market aspect makes Agnes on the whole feel like a big, beautiful work in progress. Displays populate the front third of the building: shelves of wine with tags offering detailed descriptions; tables full of crackers, cheese-friendly fruit spreads and tins of mussels farmed from Danish fjords; refrigerators stocked with butter and pâté and a few prepared items. People still seem to be discovering the market’s existence, and it remains an open question which products and foods to go will best serve the community and clientele.
I so admire Tilaka for organizing a robust cheese case, full of small orbs with fetchingly chalky or wrinkly rinds and larger pale wheels hacked in ways that resemble models of the moon in various phases. Artisan cheese tends to be a geeky subsection of America’s accelerated, ever-evolving food culture. Its popularity waxes and wanes. I am among the cheese dorks. I give as much steady business as I can to gems like DTLA Cheese in Grand Central Market and Milkfarm in Echo Park.
Which is to say: For dessert at Agnes I’ll sidestep the corn tres leches in favor of a wedge of Kunik, a Brie-like blend of cow’s and goat’s milk from Nettle Meadow farm in upstate New York, and as I’m walking out I’ll wander to the counter and ask for the tangiest California-made blue in stock. If you give Tilaka and her crew a chance, maybe she’ll coax you into the cult of cheese too.
Agnes Restaurant & Cheesery
40 W. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 389-3839, agnesla.com
Prices: Dinner starters $6.99-$23.99, pastas $19.99-$21.99, entrees $28.99-$58.99, dessert cheeses $7.99 per piece, desserts $6-$18.99. Lunch salads and sandwiches $13-$16.
Details: Tuesday-Saturday, lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5-9 p.m. “Cheesery” market 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Full bar. Credit cards accepted. Street and lot parking.