“It’s not a destination restaurant,” the chef is quick to say. “Being an amazing chef matters for about 30 seconds. We want this to be convenient. We’re going to where the people are.” 
Credit: Gowri Chandra

When most people think of Mark Peel, Campanile probably comes to mind—he ran the landmark L.A. restaurant with ex-wife Nancy Silverton (now chef at Mozza, co-owned with Mario Batali). Now, for the first time since Campanile closed in 2012, he’ll have his first standalone restaurant.

It’s called Prawn, and it’s a fast casual seafood concept that Peel launched two years ago as a takeout counter inside L.A.’s Grand Central Market. Amidst the clamor of Eggslut and Ramen Hood, it made a name for itself selling $14 bowls of takeout paella (which is surprisingly good for being $14 takeout paella).

Yesterday, Peel launched a second location in Pasadena. Here, Prawn is very much its own entity. “It’s not a destination restaurant,” he’s quick to say. “Being an amazing chef matters for about 30 seconds. We want this to be convenient. We’re going to where the people are.”

More and more, they’re in Pasadena, hungry for a change in a formerly cookie-cutter culinary landscape. Prawn is around the corner from Union, a restaurant helmed by Bruce Kalman, who also owns a concept in Grand Central Market, a pasta bar called Knead. (Look for him in the upcoming season of Top Chef.)

Together, Peel, Kalman and a handful of other chefs are helping enliven Pasadena’s dining scene. (“Nothing against the Cheesecake Factory,” Peel says.) The second and latest location of Prawn marks a new chapter for the restaurant, and for Peel himself.

He’s hoping to grow it into a chain—without the connotations the words brings to mind. Peel, who’s racked up a string of James Beard Award nominations, including multiple for Best Chef Pacific, is envisioning a chef-driven fast casual concept. Would that actually be possible? What kind of compromises would have to be made when translating fine dining into something easy and fast? If anyone can answer these questions, Peel can.

At Prawn, he’s serving up a bouillabaisse-inspired stew, not for purists but delicious nonetheless: toothsome with baby octopus and nuggets of mussel, all in a tomato-rich lobster broth that is earthy yet sweet. There’s a caldo picante that’s largely Cuban in flavor profile, but West African in its use of roasted yams and okra—far from being discordant, these cuisines are actually well linked in history. “A lot of Cuban flavors originate in West Africa, which is an unfortunate legacy of the slave trade,” Peel says.

Also on the menu is a clam chowder and a shrimp butter boil, which is basically what you think it is: shrimp and potatoes and corn, all served over rice. It evokes sensibilities of New England, perhaps, or New Orleans. Perhaps Prawn’s most successful dish, however—and its best-selling—is the paella.

Mark Peel's Prawn
Credit: Gowri Chandra

“Spanish people will come in here and say, ‘That’s not a paella,’” he says. “And it’s true that paella made in a paella pan is supposed to have a crust, it takes hours. And I could make that for them, but it’s one o’clock now. Do they want to wait until three?”

It’s not so much that Peel is trying to create facsimiles of globally inspired dishes—but more that, within the operational constraints of time and budget, he’s trying to create the next best thing. At $14, the paella is probably one of the better ones you’ll have; it’s probably the best you’ll eat from a cardboard to-go box. The rice is almost risotto-like, both in its creaminess and how each grain is imbued with broth instead of merely coated in it. The heady sweetness of saffron is perceptible, and paprika is appropriately heavy; there are a few perfectly plump shrimps, and a tiny chicken drumstick that’s been marinated overnight in a host of spices. Preserved lemon offers twang.

“Americans are still scared of seafood,” Peel says. “Research shows that most people actually like it, but eat it outside the home. They’re scared to cook it, because it might stink up the house. It’s also less forgiving than meat, to be sure.”

He cites research that, out of 75 top performing fast-casual chains, only one is a dedicated seafood concept—and he hopes to change that. Most existing seafood chains, furthermore, specialize in one thing, like lobster rolls or fried food, but Peel is really looking to be more versatile.

“The vast majority of countries have coastlines, so seafood is really an integral part of so many different cuisines,” he says.

In order to keep the menu affordable—which he fully recognizes is a relative term—he relies on farm-raised salmon instead of wild-caught salmon, for example, the latter of which is three times the price. But even there, he tries to be conscientious of his sourcing—he abstains from British Columbia farms, which have been criticized as producing virus-fraught fish due to stagnant estuaries. He prefers farmed Scottish salmon instead.

Talking about farmed salmon isn’t sexy, but Peel firmly believes it’s more sustainable than its wild counterparts. “We’ve been approaching the oceans with a hunter gatherer mentality,” he says. “They’re getting fished out. We need to find an alternative.”

That alternative, of course, also happens to be more affordable: it’s a win win. “$14 is what we used to charge at Campanile for a green salad,” he says. It’s a comparison he’s cited often. He acknowledges that a $14 lunch bowl in many parts of the country—or, heck, in the food deserts of L.A. two miles away—is still expensive. But it’s one step towards accessibility.

“I’d rather create something great and have it be accessible to a lot of people than create the, very very best and have it be accessible to a very, very few,” he says. “In ten years, I hope I’m known for Prawn.”