Scott Evans is a lover, not a fighter. Not to say that he wouldn’t totes have your back in a bar fight (he’s super-fit and pretty scrappy), or have the legit vocab to debate eloquently about the benefits of Pago’s farm-to-table philosophy...he does, and does well with endearing charm and earnest conviction. He’d just rather share food he’s passionate about, and suggest you slurp it all down with some sexy wines that make all those flavors pop.
If you give Pago owner/operator, Scott, and the other corners of the Pago triumvirate -- Phelix Gardner, chef, and Evan Lewandowski, sommelier -- a few courses and an hour or so, you’ll feel the love, too. We COLLECTIVELY lost our shit around the third plate of our tasting menu during a recent visit; our descriptive modifier capabilities reduced to moans and contented sighs after a few fork-fulls. Examples? Roasted asparagus with crème fraîche, wild mushrooms, panko-crusted fried egg yolk, and crisped shallots; a stunning experiment in texture and vegetal architecture. Killin’ it. A new brunch dish of Pleasant Creek Ranch country fried steak and sawmill gravy, served with a citrusy fresh green bean salad. Ravaged that shit. Gnocchi sauced with smoked sous vides tomatoes, sweet corn, cherry tomatoes and chanterelle mushrooms: oh, that one made our blissed-out taste buds sit up and shout “yes!” like Meg Ryan pounding on a diner table.
Scott’s farm-to-table philosophy is good for our local farmers and community, and also happens to be downright delicious as executed at Pago. Especially during these glorious summer months, it’s maybe 24 hours tops since the pressed cucumbers you are gleefully scarfing were growing on the vine. It’s also 'dining with a conscience', and some serious heart and soul. Even in the case of salmon -- perhaps the most fucked-up Frankenfish of the modern sea-sourced industry -- Scott has located a husband-wife long-line fishing team in Alaska to supply the restaurant for five years running. As Phelix says, “It’s pretty much the best we could possibly get.” The anglers catch the fish on Wednesday, ship it whole on Thursday, and the kitchen prepares it immediately upon arrival. Since sockeye started running in early July, Pago has featured this beautiful fish in a few not-to-be-missed preparations. Cured with beet and grapefruit in a sous vide vacuum prep, the salmon carries the subtle and earthy nuance of summer, and is paired with an ethereal shaved salad, house-made salt and vinegar chips, and an “everything bagel” vinaigrette. A playful spin on bagels and lox that I could eat every day, and happily.
There’s plenty to love for the carnivores in your life, too. Confidence is sexy, and it takes brass swingin’ balls to serve a glistening tower of porcine debauchery on a hot July evening not long ago. The audience? A sold-out crowd of some very lucky folks at the first dinner of the summer wine series, featuring Binner wines and Alsatian-inspired dishes, and narrated by sommelier, Evan. In this case, the culinary bad-assery took the form of succulent pork belly, more roast pork topping toothsome kraut, and further porcine glory: a stupid-good sausage made in-house, fragrant with fennel and nutmeg. Pago’s menu features lighter charcuterie variations on this theme through the summer.
The next wine dinner on August 18th will feature Rosé wines, with a lighter menu and for a mite smaller crowd. Scott is planning a more intimate 20-30 seat tasting dinner on the patio for the event. Among the five courses, look for dishes like basil risotto lollipops, a terrine of rabbit with Nanking cherry jam, and porchetta with hazelnut gremolata and roasted mushrooms. Holy hell. Pago will continue offering the “Rosé Advocacy” menu all the following week featuring the food and rosé pairing menu from the dinner. Yes, friends, all week. Oh, we'll be there. Sharing the love.
The summer menu is packed with vegetarian choices; that smoked tomato with chanterelle gnocchi is some sublime shit. Speak on it. Yeah, we have a complete “meatless Mondays” menu in addition to the regular menu – Pago has about ten different specials offered, most are under $15. There are quite a few vegan and gluten free dishes too.
You have quite a background in vegetarian and organic-focused restaurants. Tell us a little more. I was vegan for 8 or 9 years, primarily because I was focused on the quality of food. Back then there were very few organic sustainable options for beef, chicken, lamb, and I didn’t want to eat factory-farmed junk. I started out working in vegetarian restaurants. My first management job was here at 9th & 9th, at Park Ivy managing this little vegetarian deli. When we found out this same awesome space was available again, I came full circle with Pago. I also worked at Sage’s Café for quite a while.
What changed your mind about eating meat? Finding good, sustainable products coincided with me really getting into great food, and working at a restaurant that had access to great product. When I worked at Grand America, I started eating seafood. They brought in top chefs and quality ingredients from around the world. Now I’m open to everything. It used to be, ‘If I couldn’t kill it, I wouldn’t eat it.’ Now I think, ‘If I’ll eat anything, I’ll eat EVERYTHING.’ I will try anything at least once.
How does that translate to Pago’s mission? My current philosophy is based upon 20 years of eating, evolving, and learning about food. That’s kind of always the goal: that’s why it’s farm-to-table, that’s why it’s seasonal. Local. Organic. People started making the “farm to table” connections, but I wanted to not brand it completely that way, because I don’t want to ever seem insincere or make a whole marketing campaign out of it. There’s no way to be perfect at it and live where we live.
We do live in the landlocked mountains, with a 5 month condition called ‘winter.’ How does Pago’s menu change during the year? There’s no way for us to have beautiful, local, cherry tomatoes year-round, so we change the menu and eliminate things that are out of season. But we’re always relying on this, the region we are in. When we get outside of our little bubble (either because of sourcing or season), then the choice needs to be all about quality and the integrity of the product.
How do you approach product sourcing for Pago? You can’t be 100% farm-to-table AND organic, without being a hypocrite about something. If you try to be that [stringent] you’re missing out on some amazing producers who are local, but aren’t certified 100% organic. Instead, you can go locally to these farmers, and visit with them, and decide for yourself if you like the way they’re raising their animals and produce. That was my warning to myself, ‘don’t get so hung up on how it has to be that you miss opportunities.’
Seafood’s gotta be a bitch to source. From the beginning we’ve had naysayers: ‘you’re not farm to table – you have salmon, you have mussels!’ We get sustainable fish, in season. When it’s not in season we don’t put it on the menu. If it wasn’t a beautiful fish from a great place, caught responsibly, we wouldn’t serve salmon. We buy them from sustainable places and that was our commitment, no hard and fast rules, but that is our philosophy. In the long run, yes, it tastes better anyway. You want the best quality food you can buy. Most of the time it also happens to be organic artisan production, with good quality and sustainable beef, lamb, fish or produce.
There are a lot of sous vides preparations on the menu, right? You basically put whatever products you want infused with flavor in these plastic bags, which get all the air sucked out of them. You can either leave them sit to marinate in this compressed environment, like a pickling process, or put them in a warm water bath to cook. It works really well with watery foods like cucumber and watermelon: you push water out, put more flavor in.
Y’all have quite a reputation for wine procurement, too [Pago is one of Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best wine restaurants]. A lot of people don’t understand what a pain in the ass it is to special-order wine. Some wines Evan’s been waiting for over 12 months to arrive. The special order-designated “star” on the menu helps to explain to people that they can’t get it in the wine store. It’s not that we’re trying to be exclusive; we just want to make it possible for customers to try things they usually can’t get in the state stores.
So, Rosé for the next wine pairing dinner? Three or four years ago only wine geeks in Utah were demanding rosé. For the state liquor stores, eight years ago there were maybe only eight rosés available in the whole state. Eight. Total. Now, there are 20, maybe 30 rosés you can choose from in the Utah stores, but that’s still how few choices you get from all the rosés made, from all around the world. In other markets, you’ll find in a wine store there’s the ‘rosé wall;’ there are hundreds to choose from. If you consider that pretty much every red wine producing region in the world makes some sort of rosé, that’s what we want to show at this dinner: that there’s a wealth of rosé available. For the August pairing, we’re showcasing possibly eight rosés. The beauty of it, too, is that it’s usually less expensive. For the best rosé you can buy, that’s pretty damn cool. You can get the best, and you can still afford to drink it!
Save us a table? (smiles) Absolutely.