Pas.tu Restaurant serves up fresh Mediterranean-French cuisine at its discreet Balboa Island location. – By Dani Fankhauser | Photos By Jody Tiongco
Marine Avenue on Balboa Island is not known for easy parking or accessibility, but that doesn’t keep aficionados, including Kobe Bryant and Nicolas Cage, away from Pas.tu, a white-tablecloth dining establishment. The restaurant can only seat 30 patrons total, inside and on its enclosed patio, and reservations are often necessary. Mahsa Maali, who serves as both the sole owner and chef, splits her time between the kitchen and talking with her guests throughout the evening.
“People who come in know me and know the concept, and they bring more people in,” she says.
Mahsa is content with her restaurant as a hidden gem, something a person only finds when looking for it. According to Mahsa, the word “pas.tu” in Farsi means a cozy area in the home, where one can go at the end of the day to take respite from the world. This spot holds treasures and special memories. “Every single house in Iran has a pas.tu,” she remarks.“I called [the restaurant] Pas.tu because I thought Balboa Island is a pas.tu.”
From the Far Corners
Mahsa’s culinary creations are a product of her global experiences—she grew up both in Iran and Italy, and attended culinary school in New York. For 10 years, Mahsa ran her own Mediterranean restaurant in SoHo, but ultimately left the big city because the demanding hours competed with the time she wanted to spend with her daughter, now 9. Mahsa notes that the weather and Newport Beach’s ocean locale drew her to open her second restaurant here.
“This location next to the sea reminds me so much of the city where I grew up,” she says.
Pas.tu opened in 2005, after heavy renovations turned the former Thai takeout joint into an elusive home to fine food. Mahsa added brick wall décor to one side of the space, and the other side is painted a creamy beige. Flickering candles are perched in arches built into the brick wall with ivy adornments. The entrance to the restaurant is through a wrought-iron patio enclosure, and glass doors separate the indoor seating. A signature difference between Pas.tu and Mahsa’s previous venture is the French influence found in the Mediterranean cuisine.
“I put the French in because California needs a twist,” she says.
Food for the Heart
Mediterranean cuisine is known for its freshness, and almost everything is grilled. Mahsa has a garden at her home, where she is able to grow organic herbs, tomatoes, avocado, oranges and figs for her dishes. The orange avocado salad is a favorite.Her sauces are the most definitive French influence, including the three sauces found on her combination platter: Sherry wine sauce on the lamb chop, pomegranate sauce on the filet mignon and herb sauce on the chicken, all served with basmati rice topped with saffron rice. Her customers sometimes ask if they can purchase her sauces to take home, to which Mahsa replies, “If you come in, I will make it for you.”Mahsa creates dishes she says no one else will do, such as unique creations featuring truffles, duck or frog leg. She does escargot with a puff pastry. Some ingredients are purchased from Europe. Her hummus is served shaped like a heart.
“Everything has a shape in Pas.tu,” she says.
Mahsa’s Moroccan salmon salad is the “most fun salad that I ever made,” she comments. Smooth goat cheese tops the mixed greens with fresh tomatoes and sautéed salmon. Every Friday and Saturday, Mahsa offers a special—and in the six years she has been open, she has not repeated a special. One example is her chicken pomegranate, served with a smooth, tangy sauce of pomegranate and walnuts, which takes six hours to cook.
“I study a lot of menus,” she comments. “I don’t get tired of it.” E