photo credit: Adahlia Coles
We once went to a mid-level all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, and it had several themed restaurants, including an imitation Benihana. It was sort of a bust. The fake Japanese place used the exact same ingredients that you’d find in the other restaurants at the resort, with the addition of soy sauce. The faux-Benihana was playing pretend, using somebody else’s playbook, and executing it poorly. Which also happens to be what’s going on at Pasta Bar in East Austin, an exclusive tasting menu counter that feels more like the “prestige table” on a second-tier cruise ship.
This restaurant is part of this new speakeasy-esque tasting menu/omakase restaurant trend in Austin, popularized partially because Joe Rogan said nice things about Sushi Bar on his show. So now, Austin has restaurants like Toshokan (which is pretty good) and Pasta Bar (which is not).
Pasta Bar has all the trappings of a fine dining restaurant. There are fancy ingredients like caviar, foie gras, wagyu, lobster, and truffles. It’s tough to score reservations—like most popular tasting menu and omakase restaurants these days, seats are only released once a month to create a frenzy via artificial scarcity. The prices are exorbitant, at $195 per person—before tax and gratuity, mind you—alongside an additional $145 per person wine pairing. You could opt to do a “reserve” pairing for an eye-popping $225 (but please don’t do this). If you went that route, it would bring the total real cost of the meal to north of $500 a head. Keep in mind, you will not get to linger. This dinner will last exactly two hours, and you will be escorted out at the end.
Those two hours move quickly and it all feels rushed. You are asked to arrive early to the front bar for a complimentary “pressed cucumber daiquiri” or something else just as bitter and confounding. Then you’re ushered into a dark, combination kitchen/dining room, with a wraparound marble counter that seats 10. It’s a little claustrophobic, and cell phone service is hard to come by as you’re deep in the belly of a new condo building on East 6th Street. There is no escape. The material creature comforts just aren’t there. Napkins are your standard issue plastic-y blue stripe restaurant kitchen towel. You’re expected to use the same knife, fork, and spoon throughout the meal, and by course 10, they get kind of gross. The music is an inexplicable playlist of safe and gentle country tunes, ranging from “Whiskey River” to “Jolene” to “Me and Bobby McGee.” It’s almost enough to lull you to sleep, but you can’t submit because the food just keeps coming as the staff explains each course in full.
For a place called Pasta Bar, you’d expect that pasta would be the star of the show. You’d think that most, if not all, of the courses would be pasta, or at least Italian-leaning. But you’d be wrong. Of the 12 or so courses, only about five have pasta as part of the dish. So if it’s not pasta, and not Italian, what is it? It’s not entirely clear what kind of cuisine it is, or what the story is that’s being told. If anything, it’s unremarkable New American-ish with luxury ingredients, lots of butter, and more than one gritty granita. Many of the sauces are old-school French—rich and heavy and creamy—like a sauce soubise or a perigord truffle sauce. But then the meal randomly veers into Thai flavors like a “play on minestrone” that has a tom yum coconut cream sauce, or a truly bizarre melon and strawberry salad with a curry lime goat yogurt sauce.
It’s a non-stop barrage of course after course where the sommelier barely has the bandwidth to attend to all 10 diners. The meal starts out innocently enough with some single-bite hors d'oeuvres, but then the second course is a just-baked sourdough bread that collapses because they cut into it too early. And of course there has to be an Instagram-thirsty moment with a blowtorch melting marrow out of a bone onto some gnocchi. It’s all so very vulgar, especially the miyazaki wagyu that is sliced (incorrectly) with the grain, resulting in it being so fatty and inedible that almost no one in the dining room comes close to finishing it. Everyone lies and says, “I’m too full” to avoid eating it.
Pasta Bar feels like restaurant cosplay that wouldn’t feel out of place on a cruise ship. It wouldn’t have been surprising if, at the end of the meal, the chefs reveal that they’re actors and then camera people came out and tell you that you’re on some Paramount+ reality show about restaurants that are good at separating rich people from their money. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, you just get escorted out of the dining room and into the bar, where you’re asked to swipe your credit card.
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Baked to order, this sourdough loaf will kick off your meal at Pasta Bar. Because nothing says “a bar where you are going to eat pasta” than a steaming loaf of bread. The problem is that they cut into it way too early—fresh-baked bread needs to rest a little—resulting in a dense, deflated loaf with a huge empty air pocket.
A meal at Pasta Bar is around 12 courses, and only five of those involve pasta. You will also find most of that pasta chewy and undercooked. Supposedly the meal is “inspired by the flavors of Texas and the culinary techniques of Italy,” but what you get instead is a very heavy meal of indulgent ingredients ranging from caviar to foie gras to truffles, served with rich, heavy sauces. You will feel like a goose, subjected to gavage.
The “dessert” at Pasta Bar is a grainy, untempered semifreddo that is so hard that everyone’s spoons clunk loudly against the marble dish when they try to scoop it up. It’s surrounded by a “Texas post oak emulsion” and topped with beluga caviar. It’s smoky and salty and barely registers as an actual dessert. Even the chef admitted that this heavy savory dessert was “the end to a pretty heavy meal.”
The standard wine pairing is $145 per person, or you can get the “reserve” pairing for $225 per person. Since the meal moves so quickly, the sommelier can barely keep up with explaining and pouring the wine, and you will not have very much time to enjoy it. $225 is a lot of money. You’d be better off buying five nice bottles of wine for your personal collection.
Wine By The Glass
During one of our visits, we did not get the pairing and instead we asked for a recommendation for a glass of red wine to nurse through the meal. We never asked about the price, thinking that it would be reasonable. We got the check and the single glass of wine turned out to be $33.