A meal at a restaurant is like any transaction – beyond all the marketing and fluff, it’s about something being promised and delivered on both sides. I know my part as the diner – I’m here with the money and the appetite – and I like restaurants who know their part too. And when the server in Pasta J tells me to the face that ‘we’re all about the flavour’, well, that’s a promise that makes me eager.
Actually, backtrack a little, because I have a confession to make. While on the bus heading down to Thomson, I had no intention of visiting Pasta J; in fact, I didn’t even know the place existed. Rather I was aiming for Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters, which stood on the corner of the same street; or at least I was until I saw all the people hanging out, languid in the cloudy afternoon, on the steps in front of those glass panel walls. Trust me to be surprised that a much acclaimed cafe is also rammed on Sunday; but I was not about to brave that crowd, and went up the street instead to find somewhere, anywhere, to eat.
Hence Pasta J. To be cynical, it could be the lack of expectations that made the place seem nice at first glance. A quiet but spacious joint, the furniture is utilitarian, arranged around a stout-looking counter behind which stand rows of craft beers. Decoration is quirky, but in a good way. I am given an issue of Top Gear magazine while I wait for my order – it’s either the first magazine on hand, or I really need to start looking at my life, sort things out a bit, maybe take up running… uh, sorry, I digress.
The menu comes up, and in between breathless and sometimes baffling descriptions – carbonara that’s got neither egg nor bacon, for one – there are signs of something attentive and hardworking in the operation. There are offhand mentions of salmon being brined, bacon being cured in-house; of plenty of bone stocks, beef and chicken alike, and I find myself actually dithering over what to choose. Or at least I dithered until I saw that the tomato soup uses a beef bone stock, and that there’s a stew of beef and stout. Well, that was easier than I thought.
The tomato soup, served in a mug, is advertised as being made from beef bone stock. It’d be more accurate to say they’ve managed to cram about half a cow into a stockpot – from first smell to last drop, the soup is dominated by its beefiness, evened out by tomatoes and herbs but still easily carrying along all the other ingredients into a powerful, mooing embrace. Along with the acidity of the tomatoes, it’s all so front-loaded that it gets a bit cloying – or it would, if not for the fermented scent of sour cream, tinted yolk-yellow by the soup, that gives it a smoother, creamy finish. The server is happy to give me more sour cream at my request.
The first time I had a stew with stout as the liquid was in Dublin, the home of Guinness – and of some of the best beef in the world – and it has haunted me. Meaty and tumultuous, I have never found anything even in London that equalled it, even if some places have come close. To be fair, it’s a personal memory thing, so Pasta J’s rendition probably had no chance of matching that Dublin beauty; but it certainly gets a lot right.
For one, it’s a dish that knows the way stout behaves under cooking. The dark bitterness of stout is tamed by the other ingredients, and by pressure cooking, and emerges as an intense, malty, almost charred sweetness. The beef brisket is yielding and tender, but retains its springy mouthfeel; its collagen has melted and pooled around the rims of the dish, gelatinous and savoury. The dish is small, but there’s enough buttery mash to soak up every last smear of stew and make a rib-sticking meal.
The owner, who happily gets stuck in the hands-on work as well, is friendly and clear-eyed on the direction of Pasta J’s cooking – these recipes, these takes on the ingredients at hand, are his, tailored to his own preferences. He jokes about the number of ingredients in the stew, is tight-lipped when I list some things I’ve tasted (I will say nothing; go try it yourselves). He harbours no illusions that his recipes are the hippest or trendiest in town; but he is certainly, and justifiably, proud of the dishes themselves, confident that because they are things he likes, there’ll be people who agree with him. And I can respect that attitude, especially as I’m finishing another review of a joint that takes the opposite approach – slapping on a label, flying a banner, that seems to have been put up merely for optics.
Not Pasta J. They probably don’t have the time to fly banners or think up too many labels – there’s too much salmon to brine, broth to manage, vast resounding flavours to hammer together. At least it seems that way to me; I consider the initial promise very adequately fulfilled. I read on their Facebook page that they’ve recently opened a new outlet in Collyer Quay, and I hope – and expect – it’ll do well.
205 Upper Thomson Road
Hours: Daily, 12 PM – 3 PM, 6 PM – 10 PM
11 Collyer Quay, The Arcade
Hours: Monday – Friday, 11 AM – 3 PM