I spent the first 4 years of my SLC residency within walking distance of what was once one of the solitary bastions of foodie culture in our town, but I have never written up an evening at Pago. So, we booked a table for four last weekend. On the one hand, I currently list Scott Evans' other venture, Finca, in my top 5 SLC favorites. On the other, I have a spotty history with Pago - I've had good experiences and I've had mediocre experiences. Either Pago has been incrementally improving or we just hit the nail on the head and picked a good night to visit (probably a mix of both), but this time the experience was great.
We started things off in a Belgian mode - mussels and frites. The fries at Pago are really good. Perfectly cooked and truffled, they compliment the mussels well. While the preparation on the mussels was good, it was the size and flavor of the things themselves that blew me away. Gigantic and super tender - please insert your own large and tender mussels joke here. Unlike the Finca preparation, which is also a favorite but dominated by the heavy sauce and the andouille sausage, at Pago the dish highlights the quality of the mussels with light accompanying flavors.
One of the unusual (for Utah) features of Pago is that they keep a somalier around - the ever-charming and friendly Evan Lewandowski. No evening here would be complete without picking his brain about something. I'm not a wine expert but I do know my Malbecs, and the Colome that we ended up with was super interesting. Nothing like any Malbec you've ever had - it is an excellent choice. I liked it even more when Evan told us why he picked it and helped me understand what the surprising flavors were all about. We chose this wine ourselves, but 5 minutes with the somalier made it all the more enjoyable.
On to the main event - all four entrees were good and each stood out for different reasons. The duck breast with brussels sprouts, squash, wild mushrooms and huckleberry was a mixed experience for me. As you can see below, it is plated in three slices of duck with a perfectly crisped skin on a bed of the vegetables, shredded duck, mushrooms and huckleberry reduction. The largest piece was amazing - and the smallest piece was just OK. This dish was one that I would order again at most restaurants but it was overshadowed by the other three plates so I guess I'd rank it fourth for our evening. To be clear - I'd place Pago's duck on par with the duck breast at Copper Onion, which I love. That rank order speaks to the quality of our food and not to any real deficiency with the duck.
The shocker of the evening was the burger, topped with bacon, gouda, pickled onion and black garlic aioli. I love a few burgers in town - Wild Grape and Copper Onion probably vie for my favorite, but no longer. I'm officially passing the torch and making the declaration: the Pago burger is the best in SLC right now. The crisp bacon atop a perfectly cooked medium temp burger combine with the winter greens and pickled onion to make for a crushingly good experience. Go eat this ASAP, and please, please keep it on the menu Pago.
Next to discuss - the lamb with farro, kale, smoked onion and olive. I have no idea what that sauce is but it was only bested by the flavor of the lamb itself. Where some of my previous meals at Pago had been spoiled by oversaucing and trying too hard, this plate showed proper restraint and allowed the fantastic piece of meat to be the star. I highly recommend trying the lamb.
I was really excited about the pork tenderloin cooked sous vide with bacon, polenta apple and turnip. As an unabashed fan of anything molecular, I was bummed when my friend ordered this as it meant that I would have to try something different, but thankfully she shared. Pork may be the ideal meat for sous vide preparation given its tendency to dry out - you get a perfect cut that is moist without any worries that you're taking risks. The bacon wrap allows the meat to be seared crispy on the outside without cooking into the tenderloin. Finally, the polenta was done right - light crunch on the outside and creamy throughout.
We ordered som Charming Beard coffee to accompany our desserts. If you don't know them, Charming Beard is an SLC company that has a remarkably unique product. Ultra light roast botique, single-origin, small batch... yet unpretentious. I love dark roast coffee so I don't often buy Charming Beard, but when I'm in the mood for a light roast I think it is hard to beat!
Let's dissect the desserts in order of how much I liked them. First, we ordered a carrot cake type thing that I didn't like at all. It is ugly on the plate, the cake was dry... not good.
Next, we had a flourless chocolate cake topped with peanut butter nougat. It was good enough - but I wouldn't order again as I expected the chocolate to be richer. The topping dominated the cake here.
Finally, the redeeming dessert - an absurdly good bread pudding with salted caramel and ice cream. Whereas the other two sweets were decidedly sub-par, this one stood out among the best I've had in Salt Lake. We should have just ordered three of them!
The Verdict? I had not been to Pago in over a year and things seem to have changed for the better - our food ranged from good to outstanding and where I had been annoyed by the pretense in past visits the entire staff was friendly and completely dialed with their knowledge and recommendations. Back into the regular rotation it goes!