In the 70s and 80s my sister Lottie Ann Ellsworth and I owned a small French Restaurant in Holladay. I had been trained in France in classical French cuisine and remained emphatic about following classical traditions. Now, as a chef and a culinary artist, I’ve learned to take a classical idea and twist it to conform to the moment. The knowledge and background of the classics is a base to return to time and time again, and yet each time the outcome is new.
Last night, my sister and I, after much anticipation, went to Pago in the 9th and 9th district of downtown Salt Lake. The restaurant is small and cozy with lots of exposed brick — I felt like I was in Boston or San Francisco in one of those great little historical areas which has been meticulously maintained to remain old and timeless. Actually, a fresh idea in Utah!
Pago, named after a Spanish wine, is the brain child of Scott Evans. Scott has paid his dues in the restaurant business. He has worked in and managed places like Squatters, the Depot, Stein Erickson, Grand America and the highly touted Globe. Scott is sweet, handsome, calm and a devoted family man with a twinkle in his eye. He seems extremely well-suited to his business and very capable of making his own dreams come true. His one, great strength is in bringing together a team of classically trained artists and then letting them create. He seems to almost totally stay out of the kitchen, which probably accounts for the “calm” thing.
Mr. Evans is also a superb wine guy! I loved his wine list which has twenty carefully chosen wines by the glass — 10 whites and 10 reds. Pago is the only restaurant in Salt Lake to use a freshness-controlled wine system. This cuts down on the waste of a very expensive product and allows people to get a really good wine by the glass. My sister and I were very impressed. Pago also offers an extensive and hand-picked list of wines by the bottle, which, to me, may be the best in town. I brought a 1er Cru Santenay White Burgundy from my collection — beautiful mid palate sweetness with a toasted oak finish. From the restaurant Lottie got a glass of Conde Lagado Albarino, citrusy and perky, and I had a glass of the Road 31 Pinot Noir which had a hint of soft spices and complimented my entrée.
I must say, as I always do, that I was a guest of Pago and they knew we were coming so there was no element of surprise here. My purpose in writing these articles for QSaltLake is to just convey the feelings and enjoyment I have in discovering the culinary scene in Salt Lake. Don’t judge me for being too positive. There are plenty of writers out there who are only interested in the screw-ups and the negative stuff.
We were waited on by Jeff Foehr, a consummately professional waiter who has served me before in other nice places. Jeff is tall, dimpled and emits pheromones bursting with testosterone. Like his surroundings, totally masculine and Spartan — no fluff here! My sister and I were both kind of well, a-flutter.
Our food was just as my theme indicates: classic with a twist, and very good I might add.
We ordered off the menu this time just so we could really see what was going on. I, on purpose, chose the Lamb Brandade, which is a sort of lamb/potato hash with a poached egg on top. Our waiter made a face at this choice, so I knew right away he wasn’t too pleased, but the dish just seemed so interesting to me I had to go there. This hash patty was a little overcooked, I thought, and a little too seasoned. The egg was not the prettiest poached egg I’ve seen, but I did get some great ideas from it. I’m going to work on this recipe myself!
Lottie ordered the pan-seared scallops, which had been a favorite in our restaurant. The chefs had spooned a very fresh-tasting tomato ragout on top which we both loved. The scallops were huge, perfectly cooked and plump. One small criticism here, though. The sauce, I thought, could have been a bit more liquid. The flavor, however, was Devine.
We were then treated by two of what I believe are house specialties. Home-made honeyed beets and the Salad of the Marketplace. My sister and I grew up in North Ogden where each year our Mom made jars and jars of pickled beets so, for a brief moment we were transported to our past. The beets were a mixture of red and gold. They were earthy, sweet and still slightly al dente. Many of these starter items were served on sushi-style ceramic dishes which were beautiful and appropriate. The salad had a mixture of rocket greens and arugula in a delicious Muscat vinaigrette. It was garnished with garden cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced yellow squashes, then sprinkled with a house-made, crunchy granola. We were happy.
I had heard from several people that the portions at Pago were quite small, but in our case we found all the portions very adequate, and in fact our entrée servings were generous. My sister had the quail and I had the pork chop. There were two quail perfectly roasted and still succulent; the flavor reminded us of wild pheasant. They were served in a pool of a beautiful brown sauce which my sister ate so fast I didn’t get a chance to experience it myself, and then garnished with some preserved huckleberries — I have a snapshot to show you. My pork chop was on a mound of delicious, creamy mashed potatoes made in a French puree style and, can I say the word “gravy?” I loved the rustic and comfort-food idea behind this dish. It was topped with beautifully hand-cut apples, lightly cooked in cinnamon. In 1997, my sister and I spent a week in Brussels and ever since we have been devotees of Belgian cuisine. Both of our entrees reminded us of this remarkable culinary tradition.
Jeff brought us a dessert sampler which we both vowed only to take a bite of. But we devoured the whole thing. It was a house-made lemon cello Tira Misu, vanilla pot de crème with the huckleberries on top and some chocolate mousse made with Amano Chocolate from Utah Valley, once again drawing from the classics. My only comment here is that the mousse, to me, was more of a crème de chocolat; it lacked the stiff texture I expect in a true mousse.
The chefs at Pago form a very compatible marriage of experience. Adam Finley and Mike Richey, I salute you! I give Pago an overall rating of 93+.