Pasta Plus Café
8 Rowan St.
Phone (709) 722-0942
I’ll start with a bit of news. As of March 31, St. John’s will be down to one, just one, Pasta Plus Café. The Avalon Mall location will close at the end of this month, leaving only the Churchill Square restaurant (on the lower floor of the indoor mall on Rowan Street).
Restaurateur Mike Murphy recently purchased the Churchill Square restaurant. I like what he’s done with the place.
Before Murphy completed some long overdue DIY on the restaurant it felt like a pokey, claustrophobic bistro that wasn’t quite ready to be taken seriously. It used to consist of two distinct sections, a cold outer area and cosy inner sanctum. Now it’s a single, spacious room, which works much better. It has energy and actual sightlines. The feeling of being entombed is gone forever.
Pasta Plus Café has mainly booth seating, with another five or six stand-alone tables. I’d say approximately 35 to 40 diners can be seated there comfortably. Lighting is incandescent — from pendant style fixtures above each table — and low, but bright enough. Curiously a string of Christmas lights also twinkled from a garland of artificial evergreen decorating the top of the room’s wainscoting.
Guest and I started with quite different appetizers. I began with one pound of white wine-steamed cultured mussels. I cannot imagine wild, rock clinging mussels tasting any better than the pristine beauties I was served at Pasta Plus Café. They were plump, full of colour and with just the right bite. My mussels were so good I was tempted to order another pound. Ideally with fries, like the French moules-frites (although I don’t think they do fries at Pasta Plus Café).
“Lentils are friendly — the Miss Congeniality of the bean world,” said the late author and cook, Laurie Colwin. Greg Malone told me they’re good for your heart. I told guest this when I was asking him to order the curried green lentil and spinach soup so I could write about it. Turns out he was in a curry kind of mood anyway. The soup had lots of lentils, some spinach, potato and plenty of spicy heat and tang. The background broth was only slightly bland. (Perhaps a good veggie stock made from roasted vegetables might have done the trick.)
They make good fish cakes at Pasta Plus Café. I enjoyed two crispy golden cakes with a dark oniony relish. The ratio of flaked fish to potato seemed about 50/50. Fortunately the fish was salt cod and you can’t beat traditional salt fish as an ingredient. The salt brings out the excellent fish flavour which permeates the potato binding. Salt also played a beneficial role in a bowl of delicious pea soup (with generous chunks of salt meat and carrot) that accompanied the cakes.
Pasta Plus Café does a daily quiche. Frankly, you don’t find quiche much in restaurants anymore. I suppose it’s considered a cliché, old hat. I disagree. There’s nothing nicer than a simply made quiche accompanied by a salad. That’s what you get at Pasta Plus Café. On one of the days I visited the perfectly cooked pie was filled with egg, cream, tomatoes, bacon and cheddar cheese. The salad had spinach, strawberries and mandarin orange en vinaigrette. If that’s not a balanced lunch then what is?
I’m afraid the chicken curry ordered by guest was more of a miss than a hit. First it was lacking in presentation. A square plate was sectioned into quadrants: rice, black beans, chutney and small bowl of pulled chicken in curry sauce. The colours (even in the curry) were subdued. Unfortunately, the flavours (with the exception of a darn good date and apple chutney) were also muted. Did I mention the rice was dry? It’s possible, with fresh, bright curry spices to work magic, but there was no magic here.
My choice of New Orleans pasta, billed as the restaurant’s “signature dish,” was better. It was prepared the way I like most pasta dishes, with simplicity. The sauce for the fettuccine was basically oil, herbs, hot pepper and garlic. Mixed through the pasta was sliced mushroom and sliced chicken. I declined the grated parmesan offered. The fettuccine was slightly al dente, of good quality but not hand made.
If there’s one thing that brings out childlike excitement in me, and a smile from ear to ear, it’s the combination of vanilla ice cream and coconut. I’ve loved it all my life but rarely treat myself to it. How could I resist Pasta Plus Café’s coconut covered snowball? Impossible. A ball of vanilla ice cream thoroughly coated with a mix of toasted and untoasted coconut was served with chocolate sauce and some kind of whipped topping product. I was quite content with the top quality ice cream and coconut. No, I think I was actually euphoric.
Pasta Plus Café in Churchill Square is doing a good job. Prices are fair, service is prompt and an effort is being made to prepare as many dishes as possible from scratch. They also make their own cheesecakes.
Our server told us they’d really like to be busier for dinner. Why not give Pasta Plus Café a try?
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip — $90 (approximately)
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Contact him through his website,
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells