American palates, which tend to favor sweetness and saltiness as the supreme virtues of the flavor spectrum tend to look askance at bitter flavors. It's not only because bitterness is the underdog that I hold something English dictionaries invariably define as "unpleasant" in such high regard: A touch of bitterness can bring out new flavor dimensions in familiar ingredients. It was a fearless Espresso-Crusted Tenderloin ($29) that made my first visit to Glendale's Iron Horse Inn stand out.
Ground espresso made a juicy, medium-rare filet mignon a new experience. A nest of orzo pasta added a nice texture, with wilted arugula and whole garlic cloves that intensified the darkness of the espresso's flavor, broken here and there by bright explosions of grape tomatoes. Reduced pinot noir drizzled around the plate curbed the sharpness without being syrupy-sweet, as some reductions can be. Leathery and spicy, a glass of Calera Pinot Noir ($7.50) was a perfect partner.
Shawn Weinbender, formerly of Chateau Pomije, is the new executive chef at the Iron Horse. The espresso crust for the tenderloin is one of many new twists he's given to the menu. Pan-Seared Chicken ($18) with handmade lemon parsley gnocchi, Frenched Pork Chops ($18 for two chops) with mulato chili coffee sauce and a vegetarian Eggplant Florentine ($14) are a few others.
Before walking inside, my boyfriend and I stopped to watch a train rush by on the tracks alongside the restaurant. The dinner that followed was punctuated by the roar of trains passing at 20-minute intervals. It gave me a peaceful feeling. My boyfriend said he felt like he'd been dining on a train.
Actually, much of the waitstaff of the original Iron Horse Inn of the 1960s was recruited from dining cars of trains as the bus and airline industries were taking over. But the building's history -- ever linked to the railroad tracks -- goes much further back, to a tavern in the 1850s and an ice cream parlor with liquor hidden in the walls during Prohibition.
The most recent incarnation is the result of extensive renovation of the elegant, two-story Victorian building by the Sawyer brothers of Glendale, who reopened the restaurant in 1997.
During warmer weather, a patio alongside the historic Village Square offers a view of the old depot. Inside, guests can choose between upstairs or downstairs seating. Downstairs is quieter and more formal, with floral drapes and red walls. The bar and dining area upstairs feels like an Elk's Club, with hunter-green walls, oak woodwork and vaulted ceilings. Here, you'll find live Jazz on the weekends. Because of a private cocktail party the night we visited, we were seated downstairs.
Our waiter was a seasoned veteran. Plates were cleared, silverware replaced, and wine and bread delivered in well-honed rhythmic succession. His wine suggestions (given only at our request) were excellent. But initially, his years of experience were evident only in his detached presence. And he wasn't prepared to answer our questions about Kampachi, on the list of specials. Although he quickly retreated to the kitchen and returned to tell us it was from Hawaii and similar to yellowfin tuna, his lack of enthusiasm did not persuade us to try it. It was later, on the phone with Weinbender, that I learned the kitchen is actually very excited about offering more unusual fish entrées as nightly specials.
We started with Prince Edward Island Mussels ($7), swimming in a spicy tomato-basil broth and scooped up on garlic toast points. Two glasses of Peter Lehman Chardonnay ($7.50 a glass) from Australia were refreshing alongside the spice.
Offered in two sizes, salads are a good deal. Greens are fresh and varied, and the Iron Horse uses local produce when seasonally available. My boyfriend had an Asparagus and Portabello Salad ($5 small), with baby field greens, roasted red peppers and toasted sunflower seeds. My Iron Horse Salad ($4 small) was a lively mix of baby spinach, radicchio and arugula, tossed with julienned pears, walnuts, blue cheese and roasted shallots. Our only complaint was the evenness with which dressings were applied. His salad was drowning beneath a sweet, thick balsamic vinaigrette, whereas my salad was lightly dressed in a surprisingly inconspicuous applewood-smoked bacon vinaigrette.
Splitting both of our entrées for a $4 charge, we also tried the signature Roasted Sea Bass ($29): crisp on the outside and hot and steamy within. A bed of buttery, puréed sweet potatoes was lovely, but the garnishes were lovelier: paper-thin snap peas and a small, pink mound of pickled onions.
We were full, but felt no guilt in polishing off a Warm Molten Cake ($4) oozing with hot, semisweet chocolate ganache, and topped with whipped cream.
The Iron Horse Inn might be old news to many people, but if you've never been there, or haven't visited since Weinbender became the chef last April, you need to put it on your list. ©
The Iron Horse Inn
Go: 40 Village Square, Glendale
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday; 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday.
Prices: Reasonable to expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Sea Bass, seafood specials, Eggplant Florentine
Accessibility: Yes, including elevator to second floor