The restaurant business is difficult. Long hours, slim profit margins, physically demanding work…you really have to love it, because it requires dedication and toil. It’s also really easy to screw up.
I am not a food snob. I’m willing to overlook a lot when I go to a restaurant. If service is slow, maybe it’s because they’re understaffed that evening. If I ordered brown rice and got white rice, I’m not going to send it back. If the cup of tea I requested never arrives, I’ll be okay. It’s all in how you set your expectations; I try to be realistic with mine and it saves me useless frustration.
Thus, when my friends raved about Pasta Freska, a small Italian ristorante down on Westlake in Seattle–the food is crazy good, they told me, and the way Chef Mike runs the place is so unusual; they were all sure I’d love the place–I took their reviews with a dash of salt.
In my experience, small “unusual” restaurants run by “Chef” so-and-so are a gamble, so in order to avoid disappointment I consciously did two things: opened my wallet, and dropped my expectations to the floor.
Chef Mike does indeed have an unusual model (by American standards) for operating Pasta Freska. It is the prix fixe model: Set a menu based on the best ingredients you can find fresh, today, and serve that to everyone who comes in, for a fixed price (prix fixe).
Personally, I like this model. It removes a lot of operational overhead (no individual order taking), and reduces food waste (no need to toss that mussel soup that no one ordered). Also, with the variety of dishes reduced, a small kitchen is less likely to get overwhelmed. It’s simple, lean, and elegant.
What I really like about the prix fixe model, though, is that it is ambitious. Instead of a restaurant with a broad but tired old collection of entrees that have been on the menu since the Ford administration, what the prix fixe model promises is freshness and talent. It puts a lot of pressure on the chef, to be sure. The smaller choice of dishes implies more attention and focus are given to those that remain. It also presumes that chef has gone out that morning to hunt down the best ingredients available and constructed a menu that uses those ingredients in a coherent, thematic manner. Done well, though, and it can be the showcase for genius.
Last Saturday, unfortunately, there was no genius in residence.
It may seem obvious, but the first thing a prix fixe restaurant needs to tell you is, well, the prix fixe. The second thing it needs to tell you is what you’re getting for your prix fixe.
We opened the door at the pointy end of the low, flatiron building and stepped into the small foyer, and I glanced around. There were plenty of photos and mementos and framed copies of laudatory reviews, but nowhere was there a placard or slate to tell me what was on the menu or how much it would cost.
Having already given myself (and my wallet) over to the experience, we pressed onward. It was a busy night–there were at least two large parties already seated, one with nearly twenty people–so I expected there would be some bumps along our journey.
We were seated, and Chef Mike came by to greet us and ask if we had any allergies or preferences. We didn’t have any, so off he went. He came back with a bottle of wine, a Barbera, which he opened and poured for us (no question of preference here, or mention of cost). Again…wallet open.
The meal began to arrive in lurching stages. Since I never saw a plan of the day’s menu, I’m only guessing at what we had. In order, we were served:
- A salad of fresh greens–mache, arugula, red-leaf–with feta and basil; it had more of a Greek feel than Italian, but the quality of the ingredients was excellent.
- A basket of fresh bread with roasted garlic cloves–you can hardly go wrong with this; no complaints.
- Eggplant Parmesan–super-thin slices served with a spatula off a platter in a sauce that was both thin and goopy; when you have to help scrape the cheese off the server’s spatula, presentation takes a big hit.
- Lemon-dill salmon–a small cut of filet from what looked to be wild-caught salmon in a rather thin sauce; while the flavors were good, the salmon was a bit overcooked, which would have been okay if the sauce was a bit creamier or robust so it could cling more to the fish.
- A prawn–yes, a single prawn, with a small bit of veg (I got a red pepper slice), that was delivered to my plate with tongs; again, not great presentation.
- There then came a long gap in our meal, and it was clear that the kitchen was having trouble dealing with the number of plates required at once by the large parties. This lull in activity was filled, however, by the lovely and talented Miranda, a soprano studying musical theater, who serenaded us with a fine rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” which literally brought tears to my wife’s eyes. Miranda walked from table to table through the evening, delivering Mozart, Puccini, and Andrew Lloyd Webber as she filled water glasses. No complaints there.
- Chef Mike asked if we wanted more wine, and we did; this time he brought us some Chianti and I smiled, thinking he was preparing us for a heartier dish to come–perhaps pasta in red sauce or a medallion of beef.
- Two dishes arrived together, then, but only a single serving of each. Neither one was suited to the Chianti we’d just been poured, and both were unceremoniously clattered onto our table by Chef Mike with the terse instruction of “You share”:
- A stuffed canneloni–the ricotta/spinach stuffing was pretty standard, and the cream and basil and pine nut sauce didn’t lift it much; nothing to write home about.
- A stuffed chicken breast in Marsala sauce–a small chicken breast that was essentially one bite each, stuffed with (again) a ricotta/spinach concoction, garnished (again) with basil and pine nuts; unsubtle, a bit tough, but flavorful, it would have benefited from better presentation.
- A dessert sampler was then brought to us, and this was the only dish all evening that had what even approached an adequate presentation. It bore a scoop each of spumoni and chocolate gelati, a miniature flan, a piece of chocolate torte, and a pair of cannoli, all artfully spaced out and garnished with splashes of syrup; the flan and gelati were excellent, the others pleasing. We both would have killed for an espresso, but frankly, the place was so slammed that we didn’t want to complicate things.
So, how much did this all cost? How open was my wallet?
The meal rang up at $30 per person which, in my book, was about the limit for the quality we were served. The dessert sampler was another $8, and that was definitely a great price-point.
What popped the total up, though, was the wine–not a surprise. While Pasta Freska’s website proudly state that they have a broad range of varietals ranging from $19 to $99, Chef Mike seemed to think we only wanted wine that cost $40 a bottle. While this is not an unreasonable restaurant price for a good bottle of Barbera or Chianti, the double-tap of (a) not having been offered a choice and (b) not having Chef’s choice brought better suited to our meal would have been irksome if I hadn’t already assumed the “open wallet” stance.
Allowances have to be made for an exceptionally packed house–any restaurant will be stressed when faced with large parties and every seat filled–but failing to display both the price and the menu is a major flaw in the execution of the prix fixe model. Judging from overheard comments made by newcomers waiting in the foyer, it was a problem that some were not prepared to face. Not having a wine list is also an issue, and one that could be just as easily fixed.
The quality of the dishes and presentation of same was, with a few exceptions, mediocre. Again, I make some allowances for the extremely busy house, but not on the basics like thickness of sauce and having food tossed my way. Moreover, I just didn’t see the heightened quality of ingredients I expected. I mean, asparagus is in season, and there are good varieties of squash, green beans, and other vegetables that were completely absent. In fact, except for the salad and a lonely slice of red bell pepper, the entire meal was fashioned of meat and dairy; definitely not the sort of well-constructed menu that sets a prix fixe establishment apart from the rest.
On the plus side, the place has a good feel to it. The staff work well together, and the kitchen isn’t a den of clattering pans and shouting divas.
While I was disappointed, I could be convinced to give it another try (though without Chef acting as sommelier, thank you). And if Chef Mike decides to do something about informing his potential patrons of the menu and prices beforehand, it would eliminate the most glaring of issues and make the prix fixe experience work much better for everyone.