How the Pandemic Shaped the Intimate Tasting-Menu Experience at Pasta|Bar
Dive back into dining out.
When I ate dinner last month at Pasta|Bar—a new Italian-inspired tasting-menu restaurant in Encino—I was blown away. Not only because of the ingenious use of flavors throughout all 11 courses (only two of which were pastas), like a Caprese whose cherry tomatoes were marinated in the juices of still more tomatoes, or by the uniquely intimate setting (there’s only seating for eight) but because the space was developed and opened during the pandemic—no small feat.
As I was entering the dining room, fresh sourdough was being pulled out of the oven by chef Phillip Frankland Lee, to be served with homemade butter prepared by his wife, co-owner Margarita Kallas-Lee. I had to stop myself from eating all four slices since ten more courses would soon push me to eat beyond my belly’s usual ability. Each course was placed in front of a handwritten card that detailed each dish: a squid ink pasta with marinated squid, lemon, and fermented chili; a sunflower-seed agnolotti with crispy duck confit; a goat-milk mousse topped with basil lemon granita and candied pistachios; a brioche doughnut with orange-blossom cream.
I ate, drank, and enjoyed a meal indoors without getting nervous about another party being seated too close for comfort, or a busy room full of servers and diners moving to and fro. While prix fixe menus and intimate dining might not be new, there are more and more spaces like this opening across the city as we all adapt to the post-pandemic world of eating out again.
To home in on how the space was adapted to serve patrons in a comfortable and delectable format, we caught up with chef Lee to understand how this particular place came to be at this particular time.
Was Pasta|Bar a pre-pandemic idea, or did it shift and evolve to provide a near private seating schedule?
Pasta|Bar was an idea that we had been flirting with for some time. We had a space available for us to use which made bringing the concept to life more feasible and it happened in a moment within the pandemic where indoor dining had reopened. We wanted to seize on that opportunity but quickly had to shut back down again, pivot to takeout, and then decided to ultimately close for the time-being. That lull in Pasta|Bar’s lifespan was actually the best thing for myself and Margarita. We were provided a chance to reimagine what we wanted with the concept—did we want to bring it back? When would it even be possible to start detailing how to bring this concept back? We ultimately knew for Pasta|Bar it succeeded best as a private tasting and sought to find the right chef to share our vision with. We found that in chef Nate (Tauer).
Through serving fewer guests a night, do you feel it is what allows you to have the personal touches of fresh-baked bread and homemade butter? Are there plans to expand to serve more guests as capacities change or is the intention to keep it intimate?
Absolutely! Given we know how many mouths we will feed each evening allows us to be more purposeful with our menu and provide those personal touches we hope people will seek out and visit time and time again to experience. The plan is to move our menu with the seasons while maintaining the intention of keeping Pasta|Bar an intimate singular experience you cannot have anywhere else in Los Angeles or hopefully, anywhere else in the world.
What inspired the concept?
With the success of Sushi|Bar I knew that I wanted to expand upon that model and do something that mimicked the service style but that cooked an entirely different cuisine. Pasta is always something that I’ve been wanting to play with for a long time and something that truly excites me. As we do with every Scratch concept, we are guided by the core tenet of cooking, cultivating, and producing every ingredient from scratch. That process succeeds to its highest potential when we can share the stories of where produce is sourced, how pasta shapes are created, and ultimately what we hope these dishes taste like with our guests.
Where does the Italian inspiration behind the menu come from? Can you please expand on the Caprese? It blew my mind.
Our other concepts (Sushi|Bar and Scratch|Bar and Kitchen) each have very distinct identities that lend themselves well to our methodology. There are very few places in the world where everyone knows exactly the food found there and to some extent the nuances behind those dishes. Italy is one of those places. The terroir of California in a lot of ways also is complementary to that of Italy—sweeping coastlines, pastoral green spaces, and mountain terrain—so growing up in California has provided me a profound symbiotic point for the inspiration behind this restaurant. Tomatoes can be an amazing ingredient if treated well. Our goal was to reinforce the sweet and savory qualities of tomatoes by not only marinating them in their own juices but also by incorporating complementary and seasonal ingredients.
Are the dishes on the menu a group effort in terms of invention? The team behind the bar seems to work so well together to prepare each dish for the eight patrons per seating while each element felt very intentional.
The plating of dishes on the menu is for the most part a group effort, yes. In terms of prep and organization, we benefit from the fact there are only two seatings a night and we know well in advance how many guests will be joining us. This gives us an innate ability to dictate a run-of-show wherein each member of our team knows where they are going to be at every moment. This “dance” creates a level of culinary performance that we feel sets the tone for the meal and hopefully resonates with our guests. In terms of dishes and their origin, they are collaborative but guided by ideas from myself, Margarita, and Chef (Nate).