RESTAURANT PARODY: PASTAGA

TO MY MIND, RESTAURANT CRITICISM WALKS A FINE LINE BETWEEN UNDERSTANDING AND RESPECTING THE VISION AND SACRIFICE OF chefs AND RESTAURANTEURS on the one hand AND THE NEEDS AND desires OF THE CUSTOMER on the other. THE FORMER IS WHY I DON’T LIKE WRITING NEGATIVE REVIEWS; THE LATTER IS WHY I SOMETIMES MUST. -JRS

For a period of time, Pastaga listed among the top restaurants in town, a critical and popular success by all accounts: it twice earned three stars from the Montreal Gazette (2012, 2015), exaltations from Le Devoir and La Presse, a place in EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants, and so on. That was Pastaga, then—Pastaga, now is another story. As the following makes clear, the restaurant is both a parody of its glorious past and a poor bet.

Pastaga sits on the eastern side of St. Laurent, just below the bottom of Little Italy. In terms of decor, the restaurant looks great, at first glance—particularly the beautiful kitchen, all red tile and gleaming steel behind floor-to-ceiling glass—but certain, curious details deserve some attention.

From the ceiling hang extended power bars, for example, wrapped in places with wires; these appear odd, out of place—what you’d expect to see if you removed the tiles from a suspended ceiling, e.g. cables, conduits and the like. Perhaps an “unfinished” feel was the designer’s intention; fair enough. Still: strange.

Decor.

Tall wooden tables and tall brown chairs fill the back half of the front of house. In a place where meals run an hour minimum, sitting on a high, soft chair, your feet dangling in mid-air, can be tiresome and uncomfortable. The group tables in the middle and front of the restaurant look great—and of a normal height, length and width—but some of the smaller ones, cut from single pieces of admittedly stunning wood, make better puzzle pieces than places to eat, given their irregular shape.

Two final items vis-à-vis decor: On the counter in each washroom sits a glass of toothpicks. A nice enough gesture—until you notice that the toothpicks are exposed (i.e. not individually wrapped). In a public washroom. Need I state the obvious? Similar goes for the stack of magazines, also on the counter, that proudly portray a portrait of chef Martin Juneau; reading material in a toilet would be right at home, at home—but not in this setting. (Suggestion: frame the portrait. Put it on a wall. Put magazines anywhere else.)

Turning to service: time for a pop quiz, people. Pretend you’re a server in a pricey restaurant. What would be your response to the following request, “We would like to start with [this dish] and [that dish] and maybe order more later.”

Your answer, I expect, probably resembles, “Okay, right away”, a fair and reasonable reply. Not so at Pastaga: Here the server knows better than you, and will not hesitate to respond with, “May I suggest, to help the flow of service, that you order five or six plates now?”

Waitstaff arguing with guests over an order: new to me. (Also, what precisely does the “flow of service” mean? The BS they spread thick here at Pastaga, apparently.) But, the lesson doesn’t stop there. Later, after you have ordered additional dishes—and are still slowly working on your glass of stellar white wine—the server might show up and say, “May I suggest a red wine to go with the next courses?”

No, you may not. In fact, you should not; are we patrons at Pastaga, or pupils—or worse yet, pigeons?

From the opening phone call (see post-script) to the final interaction, the service on my first visit to Pastaga ranks among the worst I’ve experienced in a restaurant of this calibre. For the sake of brevity, this review omits other frustrations and annoyances (there were many); in short, a shit-show, the price of admission: $150 (dinner for two with taxes and tip).

Things improved for the second meal; the service was friendly enough, prompt enough. Even then, though, another lecture on how to order, i.e. “We suggest you order one plate each from the cold section and one from the warm, so that the kitchen can work on the warm one while you are eating the cold one.”

How about this, Pastaga: People order whatever they please, in whatever order they wish, and you prepare and serve their requests—just like, you know, a restaurant?

Hospitality, indeed.

Although this review must mention the food, I would prefer not to, frankly. Not just because it was, on average, bad (it was), but because it felt uninteresting and uninspired; in a city crammed with captivating, creative choices in this category, I kept asking myself, why am I here? So, dear reader, bear with me; what follows may prove tedious.

To begin with the best (the bar being low, mind you): deep-fried cauliflower with vadouvan yogurt, Cajun nuts and mint. Cauliflower can be rather boring raw; properly roasted or fried, however, the vegetable develops a deep, delicious flavour. Here they balance these bass notes via bright, fresh herbs along with well-seasoned and -spiced yogurt. The crushed nuts contribute contrasting texture and an almost addicting taste. Very good. $17.

Another dish that did relatively well: heirloom tomato salad, unripe gooseberries and fresh peas with a burnt lemon and vanilla vinaigrette. The tomatoes, sliced and stacked, tasted great—because in-season tomatoes taste great. Fresh peas and other elements added differing texture and flavour, making the dish more interesting. I tasted no “burnt lemon” or “vanilla” on the plate, however—which, at least for the latter, might be for the best. Good. $15.

The one dessert I tried fared decently, a raspberry pie with ewe and white-chocolate yogurt and pink lemonade foam (out of curiosity: When was the last time you saw the word “foam” on a menu?). Not too sweet, and well balanced in terms of acidity, flavour and texture, the dish was pleasant—if a little safe—and very fairly priced. $8.

For the next courses, we move from good to dull and, unfortunately, the thesaurus offers only so many alternatives to the word “bland”. To start, the cured salmon, creamy fingerling potatoes and salmon jerky, which the menu lists as a “Pastaga classic”. During the second meal, a friend mused, “What was the salmon cured of?” and the only answer I could find was: flavour. Bland (banal, humdrum). $16.50.

Another fish course follows—“Vacuum cooked cod, beurre nantais and radishes.” A piece of cod, cooked sous-vide, lay in a liquid sauce (beurre nantais is a variation on beurre blanc) and came topped with cooked and fresh radishes. This dish I forced myself to finish out of pity, for the fish, mainly—but also for the seasoning, which, like the cod, apparently died before it reached the plate. Yep: bland (flavourless, monotonous). $19.

A vegetable dish: “Blanc de Gris” mushroom, Brussels sprouts, bacon and smoked onions. Don’t scoff, Brussels sprouts, properly prepared and seasoned, can prove extraordinarily delicious. Not so here, however, and while I’d like to write more, frankly the flavour profile fails me, so forgettable was this dish—though I do remember a powder that tasted similar to the Cajun nuts. Again, bland (ho-hum, uninspiring). $16.

There, that’s over (concluded, completed); the three examples that remain proved not so much bland, but poorly executed or conceptualized.

Take the pan-seared guinea fowl with “forestière” style mushroom puree. This Pastaga served with a classic, French-style sauce. The problem with these sauces is two-fold: for one, they quickly gel as they cool, becoming more a gluey paste than a sauce; and two, if there is too much sauce on the plate, they can prove cloying—enough tastes in, the palate tires. Both applied in this instance. Moreover, the meat had been overcooked into a greyish dryness and, as for the puree of mushrooms (also grey): unpleasant in taste and texture. Not good. $28.

A duck dish served with artichokes, cherry tomatoes, smoked tomato chutney and confit garlic sauce looked a mess—as if the elements had collided in mid-air and crashed to the plate—and tasted such. The “smoked tomato chutney”, fancy though it sounds, was more a tomato paste, plopped here and there on the plate. $20.

A final case: bison tartare with Leccino olives and anchovies, aged parmesan. In lieu of serving the tartare with bread, Pastaga places small pieces of toasted baguette atop the meat, crouton-like. This I liked; it works. The problem, however: the oversized chunks of olives, the flavour of which (think Kalamata, i.e. strong) dominated the dish, overpowering everything else. Not good. $19.

In addition to the numerous issues with seasoning and execution, you may have noticed two themes here. For one, the food, with the exception of the tomatoes, is aseasonal; most of these plates you could cook year-round. Two, the menu feels a little dated—only by a few years, sure, but still. Outside Pastaga, seasons pass, produce comes and goes, trends shift and progress; inside, time stands static, as if someone had pressed pause a few years prior.

To be clear, not every restaurant needs to innovate and create continuously (although in this genre, they generally do), and there is nothing inherently wrong with serving a constant coterie of classics—when they are properly prepared.

But the fact is, the food scene in Montreal has changed and improved since these courses came to be. Rather than move forward, this restaurant remains still—if not stagnant—evidently unaware that its competition, both within the price range and without, has stiffened (e.g. up-and-comer Mon Lapin, a few blocks up; see my review here). Whether this results from ignorance or arrogance is hard to tell—although those magazines in the washrooms, the self-referential menu category of “classics”, the at times pushy service do make you wonder.

That the first four letters of Pastaga spell “past” might make for an apt pun, but, frankly, at these prices, with food this boring, with service this boorish, there is nothing funny about it. Many restaurants in Montreal deserve your money; Pastaga, at this point in time, does not number among them.

PS – Actual transcript of the routine phone call for a reservation (SV = Server):