Too many Boston restaurants feel like they rolled off an assembly line manned by MBAs. Look, here’s “subway tile et steak-frites!” Over there, “honky-tonk trappings ’n’ fried chicken!” They’re trite packages, as familiar and charmless as a chain drugstore. So it’s startling when a restaurant appears to express the soul of an actual human individual, as the new PAGU near Central Square does with chef/owner Tracy Chang. She has a cool backstory: a Taiwanese-American local who cooked at O Ya, helped found the seminal pop-up Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, studied pâtisserie at Paris’s hallowed Le Cordon Bleu and staged at Restaurante Martín Berasategui, the legendary Basque temple to modern Spanish gastronomy. Avoiding any whiff of high concept or focus-grouping, she has put together a menu of traditional Japanese and Spanish dishes, plus some fusions of the two. The results are rarely less than astonishing.
The regularly changing four-course tasting menu ($60) offers a perfect sampling of Chang’s work. Our version starts with four small plates: pan con tomate topped with white anchovy (super-traditional Spanish); pristine salmon sashimi artfully striped with finely diced cucumbers, cubanelle peppers and fish sauce (fairly trad Japanese); oxtail croquetas (a classic tapa made airier by subbing potato for roux); and a cheesy wafflato (presumably inspired by French dessert technique and bong hits), a crisp, savory waffle given a light, creamy center with a blend of choux pastry and potatoes, oozing smoked mozzarella.
Next up is a fluffy bao tinted black with squid ink, wrapping a deep-fried oyster with alioli flecked with seaweed, some lightly pickled red cabbage and a piquant shiso leaf: an unearthly-pretty and delectable few bites. A spectacular, medium-sized bowl of ramen is next, the famed Guchi’s Midnight Ramen: skinny alkaline noodles, a pork and chicken bone/seafood broth that avoids the heaviness of pure-tonkotsu broths, generous slabs of seared pork belly, a perfectly runny six-minute egg and a pile of umami-packed rayu. One can understand how this singular bowl sparked the Great Boston Ramen Revolution of 2012. Dessert is an elegant little serving of roasted kabocha-squash ice cream on spice cake and little page mandarin segments. This tasting feels like a bargain as well as an exhilarating, hopscotching tour of two great culinary traditions.
From the a la carte menu, there’s much more to love, like a surpassingly subtle treatment of sea scallop sashimi ($16), barely touched with citrus and a string of delicate orange pearls of ikura (salmon roe). Marinated ikura gives similarly briny, Champagne-like pop to a pintxo of pan y avocado ($8). Jamón ibérico de bellota ($29) might seem steep, but the buttery, sublime, air-cured Spanish ham is a delicacy that lives up to its price. Curry crab croquetas ($12) yield another fabulous, novel filling of potato, curry crab and coconut with a vivid alioli/ají amarillo dip. Vegetable dishes are virtuously simple, like a kale salad ($12) in which hand-massaging tenderizes the tough leaves to dreamy effect, and shiitake a la planxta ($12), grilled mushrooms faintly flavored with sherry, with an egg yolk to swirl in as a sauce: fantastic.
PAGU’s version of tortilla española ($12), Spain’s classic oily potato omelet, may have stolen the crown as Boston’s best, consistently getting the interior to a ravishing just-underdoneness. Braised pork belly bao ($12) with pickled cucumbers, fried shallots and crushed peanuts is another worthy Guchi’s revival. Uni miso mazemen ramen ($21) is a stunning noodle bowl, loaded with ocean-evocative Maine sea urchin. Cedar campfire black cod ($22) cooks a tricky triangular fillet perfectly, adding smoky hints by briefly torching its cedar wrapping. Txipirones a la planxta ($15) offer another winsome echo of the chef’s time in the Basque Country: a mess of tender grilled baby squid tentacles and alioli, needing only bits of strong-flavored caramelized onions as an accent.
Veteran hospitality maven Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli designed the beverage program now run by head bartender Caitlin Sullivan, which offers some clever specialty cocktails like the savory Poco de Apio ($11) of gin and celery shrub with a salt/pepper rim. There’s a versatile list of 19 wines by the glass ($9-$14) and eight sherries ($9-$12), plus 11 beers ($5-$13) and four sakes ($7-$14). The free-wheeling bottle list—13 sparklers, including four rosés ($31-$144, midpoint around $75), 60 whites ($30-$170, most under $50), 28 reds ($36-$172, most under $60)—could be more helpfully laid out. Are wines listed under “I Feel Pretty!” whites or reds? (The latter.) What’s a cider doing in the middle of the whites? Maybe that’s quibbling on a list full of fizzy, brisk charmers like the 2015 Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina ($52). A long list of quality spirits is another asset, with bargain luxuries like V.E.P. Green Chartreuse ($15).
The cavernous, spartan, 100-seat room, all blond wood tables, big wooden beams and cerulean walls—with a 60-seat sidewalk patio in the offing—at once feels modern yet informal, though hard surfaces make noise levels difficult in the crush. Service is friendly, attentive and understandably enthusiastic about the food, as is the ubiquitous Chang. By the force of her personality and considerable kitchen talent, she has forged something remarkable here, yoking the bluff, noisy charms of the izakaya and taberna to some of the more refined ingredients and techniques of Japanese, Spanish and French cuisines. Amidst a restaurant scene full of lame knockoffs, sequels and retreads, PAGU feels breathtakingly fresh.
-Sea scallop sashimi
-Pan y avocado y ikura pinxto
-Curry crab croquetas
-Shiitake a la planxta
-Squid-ink oyster bao
-Guchi’s Midnight Ramen
-Txipirones a la planxta
-Cedar campfire black cod
Hours: Lunch, Tue.-Fri, 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner, Tue.-Sat., 5-11 pm Reservations: Yes; certain seatings require a prepaid deposit with reservation Parking: Metered street spaces, public garages and lots in Central Square Liquor: Full bar
PAGU, 310 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (617-945-9290) gopagu.com