After closing in the peak of the second COVID-19 wave in November 2020, Phillip Frankland Lee’s Pasta Bar reopens this Friday. The reopening comes after the ambitious pasta-focused tasting menu spot was forced to temporarily close during the winter as city, county, and state officials closed on-site dining while grappling with high COVID-19 infection rates and overflowing emergency rooms.
The notion of tasting menu restaurants became a bit complicated during the pandemic. Multiple courses typically served in a small space are completely against COVID-19 protocols like social distancing. The proximity to cooks and other diners was a plus before the pandemic, adding to a familial, intimate experience. But they are traits that worked against tasting menu establishments in the past 13 months. Restaurants like n/naka, Kato, and Echo Park’s now-shuttered vegan tasting menu Counterpart tried make things work by offering to-go tastings, but as with any takeout meal, freshness was an issue.
But Lee believes in tasting menus, where diners can watch multiple kitchen staffers carefully assemble a single plate. He thinks they’ll be a welcome sight for Angelenos who haven’t really experienced this type of intimate dining in over a year.
“When we opened [Pasta Bar] indoors [last summer], we sold out with a wait list. The reason why we have a Scratch and Sushi Bar, it follows the ethos of what they are: [customers] sitting at the counter for seatings. We are small, but people would now rather go into a restaurant with six to eight people rather than one with 400 guests.”
When Pasta Bar opened last June, Lee’s team completed just five indoor services before Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered indoor dining closed, leaving them to shift to outdoor dining until November 2020. Since indoor dining returned last month in limited capacity, Lee has established chef Nathan Tauer to oversee the new menu.
Tauer, who worked at Petit Crenn, Coi, and Bouchon, initially started with just one single shift at Pasta Bar in December before things shut down. He’ll now jump right into a 10-course tasting menu that starts at $125 per person with 12 savory and two dessert courses that includes three pasta dishes. There’s just eight bar seats with services at 6 and 8:30 p.m.
Dishes will rotate according to seasons, and for now, Tauer will assemble things like a caramelized potato with caviar, marinated peppers, and cavatelli with lobster and peas. “People can get pasta in lots of places,” says Tauer. “I think about pasta as an ingredient to put against others as a vehicle for Italian and Californian cuisine.”
Bar-style tasting menus are well-established at sushi and omakase restaurants in Japan. Lee opened his flagship Scratch Bar & Kitchen with Margarita Kallas-Lee in Encino in 2015 with a 20 course tasting menu. Lee and Kallas-Lee went onto to debut Sushi Bar in 2017 inside a nearly hidden alcove of their second-floor Encino restaurant space. Restaurants like Cento and Uovo helped popularize pasta bars in Los Angeles in previous years.