Chef Phillip Frankland Lee Takes on Italy with Pasta Bar in Encino

Major mangia.

  • Category
    Eat & Drink, People
  • Written by
    Linda Grasso
  • Photographed by
    John Troxell
  • Above
    Margarita Kallas-Lee, Kane Sorrells, Phillip Frankland Lee

“If Sushi Bar is my take on Japanese, this is my take on Italy. This is not an Italian restaurant, just like Sushi Bar is not a sushi restaurant. This is our interpretation of Italian,” the 33-year-old patiently explains.

For years Phillip has run three side-by-side eateries out of the second story of an Encino strip mall. In addition to Sushi Bar, there is Scratch Bar, which serves fixed-price, multicourse, small-plate dinners. He recently shut down the cocktail lounge Woodley Proper, using the space to enlarge Sushi Bar and to create the 18-seat Pasta Bar.

Ten of the seats are at a counter/bar, facing spotlighted chefs and food-prep workers in an open-air, attractively styled kitchen. Dining here is meant to be something of a show.

“With the COVID restrictions, we have all diners outside on the patio, but I’ll be really happy when we can bring them inside again. This is meant to be a dining experience, and the visuals are a big part of it,” Phillip says as he bustles around the patio checking this and that. On the Friday night we dine, by 6 p.m. every patio seat is taken. Ditto for when we leave at 9 p.m.

Pasta Bar marks the first time that Phillip didn’t craft the menu himself. Instead he brought in 26-year-old Kane Sorrells. “We met. He offered to make me pasta, and five days later we had the concept for Pasta Bar,” says Phillip.

“At Pasta Bar we just try to listen to the product which defines the dish,” Kane shares. “The antipasto section is a reflection of the farmers market at the current time. It’s hyperseasonal. I speak to the farmers, pinpointing vegetables and fruit in peak season. We then dissect them, putting them back together as simply as possible.”

Take, for example, how they make their pomodoro. “It features perfectly ripe raw grated tomato, strained of its juice. The juice is reduced to concentrate the sweetness and then it is added back to the pulp. Next we season that pulp with unripe tomatoes that are fermented to increase acidity. We essentially create the perfect tomato bite, only using tomatoes,” explains Kane.

Dinner at Pasta Bar is small prix fixe plates, but don’t expect Nobu-style servings where portions resemble dollops. These small plates are generous. The standard menu is $85, with upgrades available at higher price levels. On our particular night you could get items like truffles and Sterling caviar for an additional 10 bucks. There are also two levels for wine pairing, $70 and $125, for varietals mostly from Italy—interesting sips you don’t see often. A few California and French finds are sprinkled in; we particularly enjoyed a 2015 Melville Chardonnay and Rose Bordeaux blend from Chateau Auguste.

The 10-course meal begins with a show of sheer talent from Phillip’s pastry chef wife, Margarita. She brought out what might be the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had—so good that I actually asked for a doggie bag for the leftover bread. It came with three homemade spreads: a smoked toro, a delicious pomodoro/strawberry puree and a perfectly sweet house butter. I could have just eaten this first salvo and been perfectly happy.

Then the creativity really kicks in—this time from chef de cuisine Sorrells—and it never lets up. Perfectly ripe nectarines and prosciutto, delicious on their own, are served atop pistachio yogurt. Homemade eggless cavatelli and clams—sprinkled with fresh herbs and seaweed—is served in a bowl with a broth. It all suddenly disappears.

A strappy agnolotti stuffed with “triple crème cheese fondue” and adorned with shaved macadamia nuts sits in a drizzle of flavorful olive oil. Oh, is there any more bread to sop up the oil?

This Oh no, I can’t possibly eat another bite song and dance continues all the way through the two dessert dishes—which include Margarita’s homemade donuts and a basil granita with fresh berries.

The next day, my friend Sybelle asked me what I thought. I shared my experience, adding that my only disappointment is that I can’t dive into Pasta Bar and order just a dish or two. For me, fixed-price, multiple-course meals are special occasions. I am rarely in the mood to eat that much food—nor pay for it. Sybelle replied, “Yeah, but that just isn’t what Phillip does. He does what he loves.” And my sense is that isn’t going to change any time soon.

On the eve of press, I received an email that Pasta Bar is now offering take-out service with a la carte menu items. Hip hip hooray!

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