Peter Lai, the acclaimed chef at Embassy Kitchen in San Gabriel, quietly took over the stoves at Colette in Pasadena in late November 2022. Colette, which was previously a new American restaurant best known for its daytime menu that included avocado toast and eggs benedict, is now serving some of the most innovative and intricate Cantonese-influenced cooking in Los Angeles. Drawing from decades of culinary experience, Lai’s menu brings together traditional hits from Hong Kong, along with remixed American Chinese fare and pan-Asian flavors. “I wanted to take dishes I was already known for and improve on them and even slightly change them for a newer audience,” says Lai. “I wanted to be more creative, not too traditional.”
When the owner of Colette (who asked to remain anonymous) approached Lai to revamp the restaurant’s menu last year, the chef jumped at the opportunity to cook in a larger kitchen and create new dishes. Upon leaving his post at Embassy Kitchen last fall, Lai recruited a team of cooks from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia to assist with the new project. Their collective experiences helped to inform Colette’s new menu. General manager Ken Mak is overseeing the front of the house.
Lai, who cooked at the famed Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong earlier in his career, put Embassy Kitchen on the map with labor-intensive and difficult-to-find traditional Cantonese dishes like the Crispy Flower Chicken, which consists of a deboned, air-dried chicken pressed with shrimp paste that takes at least six hours to make. It’s called the Crispy Stuffed Chicken at Colette and orders must be placed in advance.
Even though Cantonese cuisine (yue cai), which hails from the region around the Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong, Guangdong, and Macau), prepares plenty of fresh seafood using skillful wok-driven techniques, its image in America hasn’t always been glowing. “Cantonese cuisine has this negative connotation in America that it should be cheap and fast when that could not be further from the truth,” says Lai. “In Asia, it is very typical to see many high-end traditional Cantonese restaurants that focus on food and presentation. My goal with Colette is to bring attention to how elegant the cuisine is and show more people in America this side of it.”
Some of Colette’s rare and unadvertised dishes include stir-fried lobster sticky rice, lamb stew, and winter melon soup. The off-menu Dungeness crab curry is served with pan-fried vermicelli that soaks up the curry’s flavor for an explosion of umami. Lai’s spin on geoduck two-ways includes a classic sashimi preparation and a less traditional porridge (pao fan). Colette’s menu standbys include classic beef chow fun, chicken wings glazed in a cola sauce, and salmon carpaccio. “Our goal is to take Cantonese cuisine and be more inclusive. We don’t want to cater just to Chinese people,” says Mak. “We wanted to include traditional dishes, but focus more on seasonality and buying ingredients and making dishes that will bring out the best in everything.”
In addition to Lai’s specialties and standard dishes, Colette serves dim sum all day, though the restaurant has not been able to keep up with demand, says Mak. While the menu includes many dim sum classics, it also has a few new-school offerings like sticky rice with chicken, salted egg yolk, and mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaf and topped with mozzarella cheese. The cheese is torched tableside until molten like lava. Mak calls it a Chinese tamale and says it’s very popular right now in Hong Kong.
While Lai’s menu is entirely different from the original restaurant, the name Colette remains unchanged. Colette, which means “people of victory” in French, is translated as dream lover (夢中情人) in Chinese. Lai and Mak, who wanted to create a romantic vibe at the restaurant, loved the meaning and decided to keep it. They also kept much of the original restaurant’s interior and patio design unchanged, with the exception of four neon Chinese characters outside the restaurant that read: “Life is like a play.”
Colette is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at 975 N. Michillinda Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91107.