Hm, I may have to redefine the scope of this blog. I can see myself occasionally writing about dining experiences.
Pasta Lab is a new Italian restaurant that recently opened on Wuding Lu (武定路) near the intersection with Yanping Lu (延平路) in Shanghai’s Jing’an district. As far as I can tell, there is no official website or online listing yet except for this Foursquare page. Neither were there business cards or delivery menus visible.
As you can imagine from its name, it involves customizing your own pasta meal, mixing and matching either various types of pasta or ravioli with a choice of either tomato (red) or cream (white) sauce, as you would “experiment” in a “lab”. Ho ho. I believe the past ingredients are fresh but I’m not sure. I do remember an advertised intent to provide vegetarian (or was it vegan) options to its target customers. It is therefore targeting a yuppie, white-collar class demographic.
There’s also a 55 RMB set meal which allows you to make your own pasta (excluding ravioli options) and comes with a choice of four soups and a soft drink.
I welcomed the opening as further expat-oriented gentrification of the area. Pasta Lab replaced a Chinese casual restaurant, one I had tried simply because it had the same name as another restaurant I enjoy. Unfortunately, the shared name did not result in shared flavors or quality. I even gave them a second chance, but that only upheld the first verdict. A new restaurant meant a new option instead of one I’d never revisit, so I looked forward to its opening as I regularly passed by and watched the renovations.
Decor: Simple, Clean, but Cold
The most noticeable feature of the place will be the “I Heart Pasta” spelled out with lightbulbs at the back wall of the restaurant. I would say this is also noticeable from the outside, though the recent addition of checkerboard glass shelf display of dried pasta might obscure that a little.
Apologies for the poor quality photo. I blame my iPhone 4. You can blame the photographer. Either way, the white-balance or lighting is unflattering in this shot so please believe me that the interior is not as dark as it appears here. I suspect the camera was thrown off by the brightness of the “I Heart Pasta” display.
What you can see is that the interior is very white and clean, perhaps befitting the “lab” theme of its name. To the right of the picture is an open kitchen separated by glass so you could theoretically observe your food being made after ordering. On the tables were nifty all-in-one olive oil and vinegar glass dispenser that I should’ve taken a closer picture of. Vinegar was held in a glass helix surrounded by a larger flask of olive oil, with the openings plugged by rubber stoppers. It’s cute, and made us wonder if there was any breads we should’ve ordered.
I generally like clean and simple interior spaces, but Pasta Lab’s interior felt decidedly cold. The spartan simplicity also felt just a little inconsistent. While there was framed art on the right wall, as you can see from the photo, the left wall is just one long slab of stark whiteness. Whether or not there are any plans to break up that white-space, I don’t know, but the restaurant did not feel particularly inviting, especially during winter as it is now. It’s entirely possible that the decor is unfinished and will continue to change but I don’t know if softening that white-space will substantially change the somewhat unpleasant but perhaps thematically consistent sterile feeling.
Service: Nice Owner
When you first enter through a large glass door, a white counter displaying the various types of pastas and ravioli is to your left, with plenty of hardboard Chinese and English menus at the ready. One side of the menu explains in three steps how to craft your own pasta and the options that are at your disposal. The other side includes recommended or preset pasta dishes, sandwiches, soups, etc. for those who don’t want to choose their own adventure.
The owner (or the guy I assume to be the owner), however, very enthusiastically asked if it was our first time, proceeded to explain how everything works, and offered to recommend pairings for us, which I’ll detail further on down. He spoke both Chinese and English, albeit both with accents but nonetheless entirely functional. The important thing is that he knows how and embraced the opportunity to do so. He built rapport and sought to make us feel special.
When we dined, debit and credit cards were not accepted, so only cash. I don’t know if this will change in the future. They also did not have any ice for their drinks, common for Chinese restaurants but something of a faux pas for Western eateries, especially in Shanghai. To be fair, the owner said “not yet” so we can assume this will change in the future.
Food: Unimpressive to Uneven
My dining companion was reluctant to choose her own adventure and deferred to my judgement, which the owner cheerfully unburdened me with by offering his suggestions to the one thing my companion did begrudgingly specify: alfredo sauce. He recommended the salmon ravioli or the spinach ravioli, and she chose the latter.
I opted for the 55 RMB meal deal. While I wanted a cream sauce, I felt obligated to try the tomato sauces just to broaden this first dining experience at this establishment. The owner recommended the meatball sauce or a shrimp sauce. I chose the former, which is admittedly uninspired. With that, it was paired to spinach fettuccine. I chose a potato and leek soup, plus a Coke that was not remotely cold enough to blunt the disappointment of not having any ice to go with it.
Our bill came out to 128 RMB and, embarrassingly, I just realized I have no idea how it came out to be that much. If mine was 55 RMB, how could her small spinach ravioli alfredo come out to be 73 RMB? I’m disturbed that I paid without even thinking about all of this until now. Something is wrong with me today.
My food came first and hers shortly after. The owner gave us an extra serving of Parmesan cheese.
The potato and leek soup wasn’t as thick as I would’ve liked, but it wasn’t thin or bad, especially after a sprinkle or two of salt. My meatball sauce was disappointing, biased to tangy when I prefer mine sweet. The meatballs weren’t bad but otherwise unremarkable. The spinach fettuccine was fine, perhaps a bit soggy on the edges but reasonably al dente otherwise.
Her ravioli alfredo was much better and quite delicious except it suddenly became a bit too salty. There may have been a pocket of salt in the cream sauce?
My sudden realization about my bill is bothering me but I’m trying to not let it color my final thoughts on the restaurant since any fault is arguably partially mine (for not realizing and being responsible to my own money). So, I’m iffy about the decor, positive about the service, and uncertain about the food. I believe there’s nothing inherently bad or poor about the food, and that I can choose something more to my liking next time. The 55 RMB deal isn’t cheap but not exorbitant.
I plan to give it another shot, especially out of goodwill for the friendly treatment of the owner.