CAMBRIDGE — Tracy Chang grew up making Shirley Temples at Tokyo, the vast Japanese restaurant on Fresh Pond Parkway that was owned by her Taiwanese grandmother. She worked for three-star Michelin chef Martín Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain, and at O Ya in Boston. With former O Ya co-workers, she started Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, a cult pop-up serving bowls of noodle soup that were worth staying up late for, if only you could get a ticket.
Then, almost two years ago, she opened Pagu, which somehow exists at the exact, improbable, and improbably perfect nexus of these experiences. The menu throws a net around Spain, Japan, Taiwan, and of-the-moment American food culture and pulls it comfortably snug.
The place feels cool, worldly. There’s a dining area off to one side of the room, filled with wood and dark blue accents; it’s where to sit for a working lunch, with a crowd of tech entrepreneurs and MIT affiliates. But the heart of the restaurant is the gleaming stainless-steel open kitchen at the center, and the counter seats surrounding it are the best in the house.
You might order jamón ibérico, the ham made from acorn-fed Spanish pigs; there’s a leg right there on the counter beside you. You might also order beautiful bluefin tartare, local catch layered with avocado, olives, and celery and flavored with a double-punch of Japanese citrus: ponzu and yuzu kosho. And so the cultural mashup begins. Brussels sprouts are prepared tempura-style; napa cabbage is seared a la plantxa, on the hot metal griddle central to Spanish cooking. Pagu’s lobster roll comes on brioche. (Chang studied pâtisserie in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu; she also has a degree in finance from Boston College and has been a teaching fellow for the Harvard Cooking + Science program.) But the brioche is baked with sake lees and colored a striking charcoal with squid ink, and along with the lobster salad, the roll contains avocado and pear.
Each dish is more eye-catching than the last, a kaleidoscope of Instagrammable moments. There’s an avocado, standing upright, its green flesh charred black. (Pagu’s avocado budget must be out of sight; there are also several baguette-based riffs on avocado toast.) It’s been halved, the pit removed, and reconstructed with an herb dressing, a little salad of sorrel leaves perched atop like a fancy Sunday hat. A fried oyster bao is delicious, as satisfying to look at as to taste, with its pop of purple cabbage against the black squid-ink bun. (I might even prefer the green pea bao with papaya salad, which eats like falafel via Thailand.) Pagu’s version of patatas bravas merges the classic fried-potato tapa with a photogenic Hasselback preparation: Thin slices are cut into baby potatoes, without going all the way through. They’re fried crisp, like home fries connected at the bottom, and dolloped with alioli, plus a squiggle of hot sauce and a sprinkle of togarashi, Japanese chile powder. I mean, they’re adorable.
What makes these visual acrobatics so delightful is that they’re not just stunts. The food tastes very good. It is smartly composed. And it is original. We see so much reiteration on restaurant menus: that dish that is like that other dish that is like that thing Momofuku once served.
But Chang does a lot of inventing, a lot of judicious recombining. She is uncommonly good at making connections: The curry crab croquetas on the menu speak to Spain, but also to Japan, where curry korokke are beloved. There’s also Southeast Asia in there, due to the coconut milk, as well as Peruvian aji amarillo in the alioli dipping sauce. At a certain point, you just stop thinking about it and enjoy the flavors and the greaseless crunch. (Pagu’s drinks list supports grazing, with cleverly constructed house cocktails; a roster of wine inclusive of but not slavish to Spain; beer that’s mostly local and Japanese; and a fat fistful of sherry, cider, and sake options.)
There’s purity here, too. Black cod with miso and sake needs nothing more than the whisper of smoke from the cedar on which it is roasted and served. And then there’s Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, still called that but now available at all times of day. (God love the elusive pop-up, but there’s something to be said for food that is tangible, attainable, and predictable in its availability.) Good broth, good noodles, good pork: It is exactly the sum of its carefully made parts. A dessert of smoked purple yam ice cream unexpectedly blows us away. And what could be sweeter than milk with bright green chocolate chip-matcha cookies?
These highlights make it easier to overlook the glitches. I adore the idea of the Cheesy Wafflato, but its smoked mozzarella and caramelized shallots don’t come through as much as I’d like; it mostly tastes like a waffle. (I am very pro waffle, so this isn’t a terrible thing.) Roasted mushroom mazemen, a brothless ramen, is unrelentingly savory and slightly gummy. Chicken katsu, the Japanese fried cutlet dish, is slathered in sauce and showered in sesame seeds. The resulting flavors are muddy. And while service is kind, it is also sometimes awkward.
“Pagu” is Japanese for “pug.” Some people name their restaurants for their mothers or grandmothers; Chang named hers for her dog. The restaurant is as personal as it is particular. It can be summed up by two of its dishes, placed side by side:
The first is a bowl of brown sushi rice topped with an egg cooked at 62 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the white coagulates but the yolk is still close to raw. The egg is surrounded by a ring of salmon roe, which in turn is surrounded by chopped scallions on one side and a chiffonade of shiso on the other. It’s stunning: pure white, bright orange, vibrant green. It showcases texture, technique, and precision. It demands you take its picture.
The second is fried rice made with Taiwanese sausage, egg, and fried garlic. It is homey and happy, inhalable. It looks like dinner: a bowl of rice studded with peas, chunks of carrot, and bites of sausage. I admire the first dish, but this is the one I’d eat on repeat. It’s the stuff Chang grew up with. On the menu, it’s called Childhood Fried Rice.
This, ultimately, is why Pagu works so well. The menu tells Chang’s story. It conveys her time spent in fancy kitchens, and also outside of them. None of these dishes appears as it would in Spain, or Japan, or Taiwan. They are true to the person who made them. In a world on remix, where information and influence are transmitted in the blink of an eye, this may be the only authenticity we have left.
310 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-945-9290, www.gopagu.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Smaller plates $6-$17. Larger plates $15-$35. Desserts $6-$12.
Hours Sun-Wed 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Bluefin tartare, patatas bravas, tempura Brussels sprouts, green pea bao, Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, Childhood Fried Rice, smoked purple yam ice cream.
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