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Monday, March 03, 2008

Basta Pasta--the Japanese Style Italian Food You've Never Had

Now that I live in an apartment with a laughable and somewhat crippled kitchen situation, I find myself straying away from the posting of recipes and increasingly attracted to writing restaurant reviews. It's an adventure, really, discovering and testing the lows and highs of Manhattan's restaurant industry. Lucky for me, I have several girlfriends-in-arms (or rather, in-forks) who would go to the ends of the earth, or maybe Brooklyn, to sift through the muck of culinary mediocracy so prevalent these days. Miss S., companion numero uno, has lived in the city for almost six years, yet was flabbergasted by my newest discovery. Miss C., my faithful sidekick in all adventures which are inherently lazy and reward-laden, is slowly becoming more of a risk-taker when it comes to new foods. Our mission last weekend was a jaunt downtown-ish to the New York location of a Japanese-style Italian restaurant, Basta Pasta.

In 2004, while attending university for a time in Tokyo, I fell in love with the stroke of genius that is Japanese-style (or wafuu) pasta. You will never have such delicious spaghetti carbonara as they make it in Japan. My god, it is delightful. Maybe it's my unbeatable savory-tooth, as opposed to a sweet tooth, that I crave combinations of fish roe and soy sauce with herbage AND cheese on pasta. There are some texture-flavor combinations that are so ingrained in your taste-buds, like crunchy peanut butter and banana, or your mom's grilled cheese and tomato soup, that when the craving strikes, IT MUST BE CONSUMED. Wafuu pasta is that magical combination for me. As indefinable as it is, wafuu pasta incorporates a number of key ingredients that are consistent replacements, or innovations, in more traditional Italian cuisine. Using fresh green shiso in the place of basil in a pesto sauce, soy sauce and fish stock rather than cream or chicken broth, and flying fish roe instead of truffle shavings are some of the most remarkable flavor and mouthfeel revelations you may ever experience.

So, in search of that elusive, "authentic" wafuu pasta, my compatriates and I set out for Basta Pasta. Somewhat hidden away down the street from Union Square in the Flatiron District, on an otherwise dead street off 6th Avenue, waits a heaven of simple, perfectly portioned, aesthetically remarkable Italian cuisine. The space itself is small, bright, and tastefully decorated in an industrial aesthetic with huge freezer doors greeting customers, and the open-air kitchen right smack in the middle of the restaurant. When we went, the walls were covered with the kind of tastefully non-offensive, but unremarkable nature-based abstract art, all for sale in the grand tradition of Japanese boutiques doubling as bars and hair salons playing with jewelry sales. Despite billing itself as a ristorante Italiano, you can be assured that Basta Pasta is entirely staffed by Japanese people, and appeared to be a favored destination for well-to-do Japanese patrons and their families. Our fellow patrons who came in expecting to soothe their urban sorrows in a vat of meatballs and marinara sauce were shocked into silence when their plates of delicately dressed and tastefully deconstructed, but hearty, salads and pastas arrived.

We, however, were prepared. We were also hungry, which led to a bit of a kerfuffle over the ordering of appetizers--S. is a longtime vegetarian, while C. always goes the safe route, while I have to reject anything that is just trying too damn hard to be "Japanese-y." We ended up with Caesar and young mesclun salads, and the three kinds of mushrooms en papillote in addition to the mounds of bread, cups full of cheese-y, crunchy breadsticks, and the otooshi of mascarpone on tiny baguette slices. The mesclun salad was classic balsamic and light greens, nothing special, and the Caesar's dressing was deemed to be a bit heavy-handed by all. Fortunately, the baked mushrooms really saved the day--wispy enoki, meaty eringi, and snappy white button mushrooms came out a-steaming, dressed at the table by yours truly with a bit of herbed olive oil, sea salt, and lemon. Oh, YUM. It's a vegetable treatment I have tried and failed to recreate at home many times before, thanks to my inferior origami skills. Basta Pasta's mushrooms were just perfect, simple, and summarily devoured.

For our second course, C. went with the house-specialty spaghetti with parmeggiano reggiano and prosciutto, a theatrical and gorgeous surprise. They wheel out a giant, well, WHEEL of parmesan cheese on a trolly with your bowl of hot cooked pasta, various intimidating tools, and a hidden plate of paper-thin sliced prosciutto. It's almost a primal fascination as you get to watch your pasta tossed into the pits excavated in this giant wheel of cheese, tossed and dressed, then tucked in a blanket of prosciutto. The few minus points allotted during the meal were unfortunately mostly for this dish, as the presentation hid a tragedy--pasta that was too hard! Not inedible, of course, but a little too al dente for all the effort they put into it.

Moving on, both S. and I partook of the spaghetti with tobiko and shiso. Yes, this is the same tobiko you get on the outside of sushi, with that wonderful bite and snap. We are big, BIG tobiko fans. If you are unfamiliar with shiso, or beefsteak plant, it is often described as Japanese basil, but its flavor is much more complex and widely applicable--I would say it is a combination of basil and mint, but refreshingly bitter and sour. I've had it in pasta, with pickles, wrapped around mackerel and sushi rice, on hot rice, in cocktails, pretty much every which way 'til Sunday. The combination of the tobiko, shredded shiso, and hot pasta was absolute perfection. Salty tobiko balanced with the bitter-sour shiso leaf, all on a delicious and decidedly non-neutral bed of pasta. The serving sizes, at first glance, seem meager (the high-rolling Japanese couple next to us had two pasta dishes each in addition to main dishes), but once we had savored every bite, it was on to dessert.

As I mentioned before, the minus points are mainly for the hard pasta in C.'s dish, but the dessert menu deserves mention for its singular unremarkable-ness. We ordered the most Japanese-influenced item on the menu to share, an overly complicated and doll-sized portion of baba au rum with chocolate-liqueur dipping areas and a strange combination of chestnut-flavored pudding (the highlight of the dish) and again, the liqueur flavor. It was tiny and heavy--overall, dessert is not Basta Pasta's forte. I would go back for the pasta dishes and the mushrooms, maybe get two appetizer-portions of pasta each instead of going for dessert. Definitely take your parents or out-of-town visitors looking for a light, refreshing, relaxed meal after shopping or walking around Union Square. As a bonus, on your birthday the staff comes out with ukeleles and sings!

The verdict? 8/10, with two points off for the poor dessert performance and hard spaghetti. I may have to stick to my old wafuu pasta standby, S&B brand tarako pasta sauce with nori: just toss with hot, drained pasta, and voila! Instant deliciousness.

Photo of tarako pasta above from Chikyumaru Publications.


WendyB said...

I'll have to try this.

lil-babii-stacey2k8 xoxo said...

hey hye to all my m8s ema, beckie, kirsty and lauren luvin ya all xoxo

Anonymous said...

Basta Pasta is one of my favorite restaurants! And the two dishes you mention are sheer perfection! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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